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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Wednesday, March 8, 2017

One more thing from the Deresiewicz essay

I forgot to quote this part:
I had a third student, a junior, who wrote about a friend whom she had known since the beginning of college and who, she’d just discovered, went to church every Sunday. My student hadn’t even been aware that her friend was religious. When she asked her why she had concealed this essential fact about herself, her friend replied, “Because I don’t feel comfortable being out as a religious person here.”
When my student wrote about her churchgoing friend, she said that she couldn’t understand why anyone would feel uncomfortable being out as a religious person at a place as diverse as Scripps.
There's a belief that tolerance is about bringing together people whose identities are different, not people whose beliefs (or lack thereof) and practices are different.  There's an idea that diversity of the first sort--a diversity achieved through presence, not practice--not only confers moral legitimacy but also automatically exudes a sense of comfort.

I remember encountering bits of this in college in the 90's.  It was different from intellectual relativism, postmodernism, etc.  Those ideas involved hard reading and mental challenges that went deeper than smiling and saying "Thank you for sharing that."  It was not as developed as what's going on now, but the stirrings were there.  Contra Deresiewicz, it didn't come from Foucault or the humanities faculty, it came from Student Affairs.  It is the process of academia replacing academics with administration.  Academic work should exhaust the mind when it's done right, not make everyone feel happy-shiny and smug.

Make a whole new religion, a falling star that you cannot live without

William Deresiewicz just published a nice essay on political correctness. It is longer than it needed to be, but it still has plenty of good stuff.  I don't have time to frame a single, cohere response, so I'll just address it in bits and pieces.
Selective private colleges have become religious schools. The religion in question is not Methodism or Catholicism but an extreme version of the belief system of the liberal elite: the liberal professional, managerial, and creative classes, which provide a large majority of students enrolled at such places and an even larger majority of faculty and administrators who work at them. To attend those institutions is to be socialized, and not infrequently, indoctrinated into that religion.
What does it mean to say that these institutions are religious schools? First, that they possess a dogma, unwritten but understood by all: a set of “correct” opinions and beliefs, or at best, a narrow range within which disagreement is permitted. There is a right way to think and a right way to talk, and also a right set of things to think and talk about. Secularism is taken for granted. Environmentalism is a sacred cause. Issues of identity—principally the holy trinity of race, gender, and sexuality—occupy the center of concern.
This seems accurate, though I think it's important to emphasize (as he does later) that this is to a large extent an elite phenomenon.  The viewpoints he describes go beyond the most elite institutions, but the rigidity of the code, and particularly its power over the wider student body, is not as bad everywhere as it is in the places that he's talking about.

As to this:

The presiding presence is Michel Foucault, with his theories of power, discourse, and the social construction of the self, who plays the same role on the left as Marx once did. The fundamental questions that a college education ought to raise—questions of individual and collective virtue, of what it means to be a good person and a good community—are understood to have been settled. The assumption, on elite college campuses, is that we are already in full possession of the moral truth. This is a religious attitude. It is certainly not a scholarly or intellectual attitude.
The first sentence seems wildly inaccurate.  I can't speak to humanities, but I haven't heard anyone mention Foucault (outside of a few libertarian friends with decidedly non-leftist views on power) since the 1990's.  Frankly, if today's campus identity liberalism were rooted in Foucault it would be a step up--at least Foucault is a hard read!  The writings that matter in identity liberalism on today's campuses seem to be shallow think-pieces at the level of Slate and Huffpo, emotional personal accounts, and egregiously misapplied/misinformed social science, not French intellectuals.  Indeed, the last sentence notes the unscholarly attitude of identity liberalism, further casting doubt on the assertion that it's rooted in thinkers like Foucault.  They don't want thick treatises, they want 3 Quick Tips For Implementing Best Practices!

Also, French postmodernists would have cast a disparaging eye on claims to objective truth, whereas today's identity liberalism holds that privilege blinds one to truth and oppression opens one to it.  There is an objective moral code, an idea of settled questions, as Deresiewicz notes.  French postmodernists would laugh at the idea of settled truths, let alone settled moral truths.

But of course, Scripps and its ilk are only diverse in terms of identity. In terms of ideology, they are all but homogeneous. You don’t have “different voices” on campus, as these institutions like to boast; you have different bodies, speaking with the same voice.
 Elite private colleges are ideologically homogenous because they are socially homogeneous, or close to it. Their student populations largely come from the liberal upper and upper-middle classes, multiracial but predominantly white, with an admixture of students from poor communities of color—two demographics with broadly similar political beliefs, as evidenced by the fact that they together constitute a large proportion of the Democratic Party base. As for faculty and managerial staff, they are even more homogenous than their students, both in their social origins and in their present milieu, which tends to be composed exclusively of other liberal professionals—if not, indeed, of other liberal academics. Unlike the campus protesters of the 1960s, today’s student activists are not expressing countercultural views. They are expressing the exact views of the culture in which they find themselves (a reason that administrators prove so ready to accede to their demands). If you want to find the counterculture on today’s elite college campuses, you need to look for the conservative students.

This I agree with 100%.

And this:

There is one category that the religion of the liberal elite does not recognize—that its purpose, one might almost conclude, is to conceal: class. Class at fancy colleges, as throughout American society, has been the unspeakable word, the great forbidden truth. And the exclusion of class on selective college campuses enables the exclusion of a class. It has long struck me in leftist or PC rhetoric how often “white” is conflated with “wealthy,” as if all white people were wealthy and all wealthy people were white. In fact, more than 40 percent of poor Americans are white. Roughly 60 percent of working-class Americans are white. Almost two-thirds of white Americans are poor or working-class. Altogether, lower-income whites make up about 40 percent of the country, yet they are almost entirely absent on elite college campuses, where they amount, at most, to a few percent and constitute, by a wide margin, the single most underrepresented group. 
We don’t acknowledge class, so there are few affirmative-action programs based on class. Not coincidentally, lower-income whites belong disproportionately to precisely those groups whom it is acceptable and even desirable, in the religion of the colleges, to demonize: conservatives, Christians, people from red states. Selective private colleges are produced by the liberal elite and reproduce it in turn. If it took an electoral catastrophe to remind this elite of the existence (and ultimately, one hopes, the humanity) of the white working class, the fact should come as no surprise. They’ve never met them, so they neither know nor care about them. In the psychic economy of the liberal elite, the white working class plays the role of the repressed. The recent presidential campaign may be understood as the return of that repressed—and the repressed, when it returns, is always monstrous. 
The exclusion of class also enables the concealment of the role that elite colleges play in perpetuating class, which they do through a system that pretends to accomplish the opposite, our so-called meritocracy. Students have as much merit, in general, as their parents can purchase (which, for example, is the reason SAT scores correlate closely with family income). The college admissions process is, as Mitchell L. Stevens writes in Creating a Class, a way of “laundering privilege.”

Here's the most important part:
The culture of political correctness, the religion of the fancy private colleges, provides the affluent white and Asian students who make up the preponderant majority of their student bodies, and the affluent white and Asian professionals who make up the preponderant majority of their tenured faculty and managerial staffs, with the ideological resources to alibi or erase their privilege. It enables them to tell themselves that they are children of the light—part of the solution to our social ills, not an integral component of the problem. It may speak about dismantling the elite, but its real purpose is to flatter it. [Emphasis added]
Exactly.  That's why people eat that shit up like pita chips and humus from Trader Joe's.

Later in the essay, Deresiewicz acknowledges the role that class plays, and the difference between elite private and non-elite public institutions:
But public schools are very different places from private ones. Their student bodies, for the most part, are far more diverse, economically and in every other way, which means these institutions do not have to deal with a large bolus of affluent, sheltered white and Asian kids who don’t know how to talk to black and brown people and need to be “educated” into “awareness” by the presence of African-American and Latino students (who are, in turn, expected to “represent” their communities). When different kinds of people grow up together, rather than being introduced to one another under artificial conditions in young adulthood, they learn to talk and play and study together honestly and unselfconsciously—which means, for adolescents, often frankly and roughly—without feeling that they have to tiptoe around sensitivities that are frequently created by the situation itself.
I'm at a non-elite public institution, and while few of the faculty were first-generation students, some definitely came from more privileged backgrounds than others.  The politics correlate pretty well with the level of parental privilege.

Post title explained:

Sunday, March 5, 2017

How narratives are formed

One should always take it with a grain of salt when CEOs complain about skill shortages (maybe they'd get more skilled people if they offered more money), but here I'm less interested in the CEOs' claims than in the response to them.

Here's what CEOs said about the challenge of filling jobs:
One executive said in discussions with White House officials that his company has 50 participants in a factory apprenticeship program, but could take 500 if enough were qualified. But he said that in his experience, most students coming out of high school lack the math and English skills to absorb technical manuals.
That certainly accords with my experience.

Here's what the sub-headline says:
Manufacturing leaders urge President Trump to encourage high-tech skills training.
Basic math and English skills are not high-tech.  They're essential to a high-tech job, but they themselves are not high-tech.  And that's the problem: People want the hot and new, not the fundamentals.  CEOs say that they will train people for high-tech manufacturing if they have basic math and reading skills, journalists translate that into high-tech skills, and no doubt some shill in higher ed is busy explaining that this is why we need people with advanced degrees in STEM...because a CEO wants a reasonably competent high school grad who can be trained to work on the production floor.

On the other hand, I find it fascinating that the CEOs are talking about technical manuals.  Normally we assume that it's higher ed that's stodgy and unable to Get With The Times, but here we see business executives saying that they need people who can read manuals while the most progressive kool-aid drinkers in higher ed all say that we need to embrace the post-literate society and de-emphasize books in favor of videos.  I find this amusingly ironic.