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.

Word cloud

Word cloud

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Hoffer on "The Spirit of Our Age"

Eric Hoffer is arguing that the defining spirit of Western societies since the Industrial Revolution has been an emphasis on administering things rather than people.  The rule of society has been handed to the middle class, which is an implicit promise of self governance.  The middle class has been extraordinarily productive when left to its own devices.  At the same time, though, with the explosion of education you get a new social problem:

"Finally, the education explosion is enormously increasing the number of people who want to live meaningful, relevant, and important lives but lack the ability to attain relevance and significance by individual achievements."

"To cope with these difficulties the middle class must learn how to contain anarchy, how to regulate and manipulate everyday life, and, above all, how to concoct a faith, a philosophy, and a style of life to suit the needs of a noncreative horde hungering for meaningful, weighty lives.  In short, in order to win, the middle class must lose itself.  It must shape itself in the image of the elitists who hope and work for its destruction."

Perhaps we made a mistake when we decided that higher education should tie itself to the project of the middle class.  Note that Hoffer is not a wealthy elitist but a self-educated writer who earned his living by manual labor.  When these words come from such a man they cannot be dismissed as the words of an elitist seeking to protect his privileges.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Hoffer on reformers

An aphorism from the section titled "The Ordeal of Change":
Though the reformer is seen as a champion of change, he actually looks down on anything that can be changed.  Only that which is corrupt and inferior must be subjected to the treatment of change.  The reformer prides himself on the possession of an eternal unchangeable truth.  It is his hostility toward things as they are which goads him to change them; he is, as it were, inflicting on them an indignity.  Hence his passion for change is not infrequently a destructive passion.
Indeed, snake oil salesmen always look down upon their marks customers.  And education reformers always send their kids to hyper-traditional schools.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Oh, there you go bringing class into it again!

In the essay "The Intellectual and the Masses", Hoffer notes that for most of history the educated classes felt more solidarity with the powerful than the masses.  He attributes the modern intellectual sympathy for the masses to a feeling of precariousness among the intellectuals:  Historically, when the low-born were elevated in social station they generally turned their back on their class of birth in order to prove their worth.  If you feel that you can make your place among the high-born and enjoy the benefits you will try to prove yourself worthy.  If you feel that it isn't an option then maybe you'll advocate for the class that you're at risk of falling back among.

Also, as we have expanded the number of educated people (or at least the number of credentialed people) the value of an educational credential drops, so the intellectuals will have less reason to feel as though they enjoy privileges worth defending.  This is consistent with the modern economic situation.

On the other hand, I think that in America some of the precariousness felt by intellectuals is about more than just a feeling tied to their immediate security and prospects.  In the 19th century, a time of expansion and optimism noted by de Tocqueville, it was also observed that America was hardly a society that valued intellectuals.  Even in times of a secure economic and political order, an intellectual can feel as if he or she is of low status, especially in a democratic culture like America.

Finally, I like Hoffer's observation on how hard it is to strike an ideal balance, presuming one wants such a thing.  On the one hand, intellectuals with great freedom (usually via the patronage of the powerful) tend to have brilliant starts, but then the society can stagnate.  Intellectuals who feel a bit precarious will advocate for the advancement of the masses (which is a good thing), but an excess of egalitarian and democratic feeling in society does not necessarily lead to a flowering of the fruits of intellect either.  You need a certain amount of tension to keep people pushing but not so much pressure and challenge that creativity is put aside in favor of satisfying immediate needs.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

So much for the latest panacea

In a recent interview, psychologist Carol Dweck reminds everyone that "growth mindset", while a valid and important concept, is not the be-all-and-end-all of success, and is hardly a panacea.  I mention this because I've heard quite a few progressive-minded people tell me that "growth mindset" is what REALLY matters for success, more than anything else.  I'm glad that she's adding some nuance.  It seems to be the destiny of every Great Big Educational Theory to go through a cycle of discovery, promotion, hype that exceeds the original intent of the founder, and an eventual disclaimer by the founder.  This pattern goes back at least as far as Dewey, according to Hofstadter, and is probably even older than that.

All of this has happened before and will happen again.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

The scribbling classes

I just finished a chapter titled "Scribe, Writer, and Rebel", in which Hoffer observes that writing pre-dated literature by centuries in most societies.  The first writings that archaeologists have found were generally commercial or administrative in nature--ledgers of accounts and taxes and harvests and whatnot.  Essays and literature came later.  His argument is that the literate classes were happy to serve as functionaries of government and business, without seeking creative outlets (at least in written form) until later.  He also notes that early outpourings of literature seem to coincide with times of political upheaval.  Not being familiar with the historical record on this, I am going to take him at his word for the sake or argument, and explore the sociological point that he makes.

Near the end of the chapter, he argues that producing a mass of scribes (or people with the modern equivalent in formal academic training) without prospects for employment suited to their credentials (which are distinct from their talent) is bad for social stability.  I think I agree with that.  He also argues that since historically the educated classes were involved in keeping ledgers and records, the expansion of planning bureaucracies is a natural consequence of a surplus of educated people.  I think that is a very tempting explanation for the explosion of administrivia in many aspects of modern life, particularly in state-subsidized sectors like medicine and education.  I particularly like this line:
Obviously, a high ratio between the supervisory and the productive force spells economic inefficiency.  Yet where social stability is an overriding need, the economic waste involved in providing suitable positions for the educated might be an element of social efficiency.
There's so much I could say about bureaucratic fluff jobs at a university, and the need to absorb people...