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

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Next book: Newton's Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica

I've tried several times over the years, but this time I'm going to do it, damnit!  I'm going to read at least one book of Newton's Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (aka Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy).  There are three books in it:  The first covers the laws of motion and gravitation, the second covers motion in a resisting medium, and the third is the application of his gravitational theory to the solar system.  I will read at least the first book, and probably skim the rest.  Because it's Newton, and I'm a physicist, and how can I call myself a physicist if I haven't studied Newton?

Since I suck as a scholar I will read it in English, not Latin.  There are many different English editions out there, but most of them (yes, including the so-called Hawking edition) are revisions of an 18th century English translation by Andrew Motte.  The Cohen-Whitman translation that I'm reading was done in the 1990's, bringing it fresh from the original Latin to modern English without any intermediary translations, and has extensive commentary by the translators.  It's sometimes called the "Big Blue" translation because it is large and blue.

PhD overproduction in the NYT

Every now and then the Education section of the New York Times publishes something sensible.  Today they have an article noting that there are too many STEM PhDs.  I'm pretty sure that my web browser must be broken, because nothing that sensible or that contrary to establishment narratives could possibly appear in that venue.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Metzger: Administrations and Bureaucracy

Now Metzger is discussing the growth of university bureaucracy and the backlash against it.  As universities expanded in the late 19th and early 20th centuries they inevitably became more bureaucratic.  Metzger has no problem accepting Thorstein Veblen's decision to blame boards of trustees (mostly businessmen) for some of it, but also notes that it helped to protect academic freedom to the extent that professors were subject to rules and procedures rather than the whim of the president of the university.  I definitely need to read something by Veblen at some point.

I also like how Metzger notes that expanded PhD production had an effect on the academic job market.  (Page 454)  This is something that some people still can't wrap their minds around, even though the National Science Foundation just released a report on how many new PhDs are taking jobs as postdocs rather than industry despite the alleged need for more PhDs in industry.

All of this has happened before and will happen again.

Metzger, chapter 9: Universities and Big Business

In this chapter he focuses on big business's relationship with universities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  He notes that whereas in the first half of the 19th century college presidents had sought donations based on their own assessments of institutional need, subsequently men of wealth decided what they wanted to support and offered those funds on their terms (a pattern that continues to this day).  Interestingly, he ties this with the concentration of wealth in the late 19th century and the unease that it inspired (as documented by Hofstadter in The Age of Reform). The plutocrats were not unaware of the unease, and they shared with many of the professors that quintessentially American optimism that an equal and democratic society can be sustained, that the masses can be lifted, and that all of this can be done without sacrifice of self-interest by finding a win-win solution through the application of science.  I'm reminded of the Gates Foundation.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Metzger, pages 378-379

Metzger is talking about the rise of universities emulating the German model in the late 19th century, including Clark University in Massachusetts and Johns Hopkins in Baltimore.  He notes that the research university did not really "fit" with the undergraduate college (a tension that persists to this day) but Americans refused to import the German university as its own thing, and instead fused it with the college in a thousand different eclectic ways.  The idea of separating the two, especially in state universities, was seen as "undemocratic."  This reminds of of de Tocqueville's observation on how the democratic spirit shapes so much of American life.

Academic Freedom in the Age of the University, Chapters 6-7

(The chapters of Metzger's work are numbered starting at 6, since they are the second half of a joint volume.)

I have been sick, which means time for reading but no energy for blogging.  I don't have a coherent narrative to spin around what I've been reading.  Some general thoughts:

  • Chapter 6 recaps American higher ed prior to the Civil War.  Much of it focuses on how colleges were places for the formation of young men and the training of clergy, the later mission being very much in keeping with the tradition of European higher ed but the former being somewhat disconnected from European colleges as places of scholarly activity.  To this day, we see this disparity persist; the Small Liberal Arts College is very much an American thing, and most European public universities have both graduate and undergraduate programs, whereas America has a clear divide between the "R1" universities (research universities, usually flagships or runners-up when public) and "Regional Comprehensive" universities (public institutions that emphasize bachelor's degrees and to a lesser extent master's degrees, often focused on professional fields).
  • Chapter 6 also notes that the policing of student conduct came to be seen as more and more onerous to the faculty.  In this regard I am reminded of town-gown tensions going back centuries, as discussed in a museum exhibit at Cambridge University in England, where I spent a month in the summer two decades ago.  The locals were known to get upset over the rowdy college kids.  However, the British residential college is an institution that persists to this day in a form somewhat different from its Continental cousins, while also resembling US institutions to some extent.  It makes sense that Britain would have institutions that mix Continental and American traits.  The US is, for all of its diversity, in its roots an offshoot of England, and we got some of the weirder, less Continent-looking subcultures of England.  If the Continent were so appealing to our cultural forebears they probably would have gone there.
  • To this day, the policing of student conduct in residential settings remains something of a complicated issue for US institutions, as evidenced by continuing controversies and scandals involving investigations into sexual assault and other misconduct committed by students, often in off-campus residential settings.  In many foreign countries dorms are either non-existent or else mostly utilitarian, being simply a place to live.  The concept of the "residential experience" as part of the education is something that we Americans seem to value to more than a lot of the world.  Consequently, the call for the campus authorities to investigate rather than (or alongside) the town police is strong in America.
  • Chapter 7 is mostly about debates over Darwinism influenced the evolution of US institutions of higher learning.  Darwinism was, of course, hardly the only factor that drove the evolution of academic freedom and values in the second half of the 19th century, but it's what Metzger focuses on.  Interestingly, many of the debates over Darwinism started only after the biologists had reached a consensus on the matter; before then the theologians didn't see it on their radar.  Once it became a controversy with theologians, however, the debate over evolution that took place in higher ed was one between learned factions, not between the learned and the masses.
  • For many reasons, US institutions of higher learning largely shed their sectarian identities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  The main exceptions are either Catholic institutions or else institutions of low academic prestige.  Interestingly, this shedding of sectarian identity happened alongside a growing reliance on alumni donations and a growing concept of alumni as a tribe or social grouping.  Naively I would have expected sectarian identity to remain important as alumni cohesion grew and became of financial consequence for schools.
  • I suspect that the significance of alumni does much to explain why US educational institutions place so much emphasis on their professional-in-all-but-name Division I sports teams.
  • Metzger gives a very hurried mention of a wave of interest in progressive educational methods in the late 19th century, but it appears that the most lasting and concrete legacy of this interest was the rise of electives in college curricula.  That may be the most benign legacy of progressive education.

Monday, July 11, 2016


This morning's Inside Higher Ed has an essay on the challenges of using higher ed as a path to class mobility and reduced economic inequality.  Most of what's argued in the essay is completely standard, e.g. rising college costs reduce the potential of higher ed to drive class mobility. On the other hand, an excellent point is made by Barbara Piper  in the comments:
The use of higher education to change social class standing in the post-WWII period was a historical anomaly; college (and education in general) had always been part of the reproduction of social class in the U.S. and elsewhere, not a part of any change in social class. The possibility that expanded opportunities for a college education have not produced quite the changes in social class standing that social engineers may have expected is not at all surprising, and might be one more example of the fallacy of assuming that education alone is the determinant of everything about an individual's life.
Indeed.  The US was not only the industrial leader of the world at the end of WWII, but was also the overwhelming industrial leader, because large portions of the world were devastated.  All sorts of things could work well for us then because we didn't face the economic competition that we now face.  Moreover, while educating the population has certainly played  its part in pushing America ahead of the rest of the world, when you educate everyone in the country then everyone benefits, which doesn't necessarily equalize people if they start from different points, and especially doesn't equalize people if the degree to which they are positioned to benefit depends on the advantages that they already have. The last point is related to Kentaro Toyama's basic argument in Geek Heresy.

Education is an important thing, but at some point you will reach a point of diminishing economic returns on educational expansion, and that's the sign that improving the economy will improve education more than improving education will improve the economy.