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, October 10, 2015

Academic Freedom's just another word for nothing to fight about

I've been reading slowly because I spent much of the week on other tasks.  Hofstadter makes a compelling case that the Reformation and Counter-Reformation actually led to a few centuries of decline in academic freedom.  Training the clergy was one of the primary (though not only) tasks of the early European universities, so religious freedom and academic freedom went hand-in-hand.  During the Middle Ages, there were certainly limitations on religious freedom, and certain religious ideas that would not be tolerated in any way.  On the other hand, the (relative) lack of religious fault lines in Western Europe's political and social landscape meant that theological speculation (within the broad confines of a Christian viewpoint) was not particularly dangerous.  So what if a few academics are speculating on religion and philosophy?  It's not like there were economic or political stakes in it.  Let those bookworms speculate (a bit).

But once kings started lining up on opposite sides of religious divides, and once the loyalty of the masses divided along religious lines, suddenly religion was much higher-stakes.  Even worse, kings and princes and dukes suddenly started caring a great deal about the theological affiliations of the scholars in the universities that they were patronizing.  It's one thing to know that you can't explicitly criticize the local authorities.  It's a problem, but it's not as big of a problem as being barred from an entire school of thought within your field.

Interestingly, Hofstadter points out that the Copernican model of astronomy was not originally controversial with the Church in Rome.  The Protestants hated it, because of their commitments to Scriptural text over the interpretations of clergy, but the Church in Rome wasn't particularly interested...at first.  Then Giordano Bruno came along and wandered completely off the reservation and well into the realm of heresy.  At that point the Church became much less tolerant in matters of cosmology and astronomy.  Until then, though, an astronomer had more academic freedom in a university with Catholic patrons than a university under Protestant influence.  But once Giordano Bruno wandered completely off the reservation, the religious authorities started taking astronomy seriously, setting the stage for Galileo to get in trouble.

What I take from this is, in many ways, completely commonsensical:  Our academic freedom is most secure when it is least threatening.  This fits with many things we've seen in the past 100 years:  Marxism was relevant to the world's biggest geopolitical divide, and so Marxists were in great danger in the academy.  However, prior to the Cold War, when the American welfare state was birthed during the New Deal, Marxism was somewhat intellectually fashionable.  And as the Cold War approached its end, Marxist analysis became (for good or for ill) more acceptable in the humanities.

Somebody might, at this point, say something about race, America's deepest dividing line for centuries, and note that fairly radical views and critiques of this subject can usually be offered with a fair amount of safety in America's colleges and universities.  However, dig a layer deeper:  Race and gender theory are wrapped up in quite a bit of jargon these days.  Say what you will for or against those theories, and say what  you will in defense of jargon for academic purposes, but there's no denying that this jargon hardly resonates with the masses.  Nobody is terribly afraid of this stuff.  It gets mocked, periodically, but then the noise machine finds some other shiny bauble, and hiring committees go right ahead as before in hiring people who emphasize critical race theory in their literary studies, or whatever.

Yes, Steven Salaita touched hot-button issues of ethnicity and politics, but he got in trouble because of the things that he wrote in plain English, not for any dense journal articles or academic books.  How many of his detractors or defenders can name an academic publication by Salaita?

*crickets chirping*

That's what I thought.

Take economics:  Wealth and power are and always have been inextricably linked, and economic inequality is arguably the most pressing issue of our time.  (More pressing than hot-button social distractors, I would argue...)  However, economists largely write in a dense jargon.  There are good reasons for that, and I would be the first to defend it, but when they write solely in that jargon they are completely unthreatening.  Yes, there are political junkies who can go off on a rant about Paul Krugman or Tyler Cowen, but that's because Krugman and Cowen write in plain English.  Name an economist who writes in jargon and is the target of vitriol by political junkies.

On the other hand,  natural science is completely non-threatening* to America's powerful interests, so natural scientists are constantly encouraged to complement their jargon-laden technical work with public outreach.  We don't do it as often as some would say that we should, but when we do it we are praised rather than panned.  Government agencies and private foundations put money into science outreach.  Nobody's asking economists or critical race scholars to write in plain English, but the natural scientists are constantly asked to do so.

Anyway, the unsurprising lesson of Hofstadter's first chapter is that academic freedom in Medieval and Renaissance Europe was most secure when there was the least religious conflict.  On to chapter 2, which takes up matters in the US.

*Offer not valid for climate science.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

The competition to be less competitive

This article on admissions highlights an effort to select students who aren't so focused on competing to be the best and get ahead.  On one level, I do sympathize with that.  Anybody who's ever taught pre-meds knows what it's like to deal with grade-grubbers.  On another level, though, the  competition to be less competitive is a folly.  You can look for students who want to serve humanity rather than themselves, but if you are making high-stakes decisions (e.g. admission to a highly prestigious institution that provides access to valuable networks) then you can count on students with social capital and economic capital to undertake outrageously elaborate volunteer work to demonstrate their commitment to serving others.   You can count on privileged students to find tutors and coaches who will help them write essays to articulate  all of the right values.  This effort has all of the same problems that I highlighted in my critiques of Lani Guinier's Tyranny of the Meritocracy.

I don't know the "right" way to pick 18 year-olds for admission to the most elite schools.  Maybe there is a right way.  Godspeed to those who can identify it.  But I think we're better off focusing on paths to opportunity outside of the top schools, rather than finding better ways to pick a class at the top schools.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Intellectual Freedom in the 1200's

I'm only 25 pages in, but three quick thoughts:
First, Hofstadter rightly distinguished between policing ideas via formal sanctions and policing ideas via peer pressure.  This distinction matters in a great many contexts, and has deep political significance in areas well beyond the campus.  From the smallest workplace to the largest nation-state, it is arguable that social pressure's dominance over formal rules is the only thing that keeps the world from descending into endless lawyering.

Second, I was not entirely surprised to learn that for centuries universities have functioned quite effectively as institutions that can secure the right of their members to question (most) orthodoxies of the outside world but were (and arguably are) ineffective at protecting dissent from the accepted orthodoxies of the campus itself.  (Speaking of dissent from orthodoxy, it is strange that I spend more class time in the computer lab with students learning to use and develop simulations than anyone else in my department, yet I am the most vocal critic of most things offered under the "technology and learning" banner.)

Finally, I was mildly amused to learn that when the European academic world rediscovered Aristotle in the 1200's some of his adherents were treated as heretics by the Church, and a few even found their institutions unable to defend them, but 400 years later Galileo's ruthless critiques of Aristotle's followers earned him the wrath of the Church.  Time is a wheel.