Wednesday, September 16, 2009

On Education (and Pundits)

As a corollary to the post below, one thing bad punditry has brought into relief for me is the misuse of or bad thinking we have about higher education. Set aside for a moment the practical benefits of a college degree. What are the intrinsic benefits? It seems to me that many pundits rely on fairly vague ideas about certain thinkers -- Edumund Burke would be the quintessential example of this, Tocqueville another good one -- that tends to get repeated over, and over, and over again as support for (or refutation of) a certain position. This would appear to support an idea of higher education as the time in your life when you learn everything you need to know, and the rest of your life when you set about applying your knowledge or coupling your knowledge with experiece. I rarely see a conservative pundit cite Nozick's idea of freedom in support of some conservative principle, for example. And there are contemporary philosophers out there making contributions. (It would be interesting to see if anyone seriously thinks through the policy implications or pursuasiveness of Amartya Sen's new book.)

Higher education ought to be a time in which you (1) learn how to think, (2) learn how to converse, and (3) learn about the wide universe of thought. Learning how to think means that we engage Burke and Tocqueville (say) critically; and by "critically" I don't mean that we seek out flaws by way of offering "criticism," but instead that we tease out the implications and understand fully rather than simply skim the surface of thought. The stray quote of thinker X gives the patina of engaging other thinkers, but in the end it's just name dropping; it's an argument from authority.

Learning how to converse doesn't just mean learning how to talk. It means learning to engage others in a respectful dialogue and putting that dialogue in a broader context. This means being respectful of other's thoughts and responding with intellectual honesty and personal respect -- both in agreement and in disagreement.

Learning "about the wide universe of thought" means understanding that the canon is never closed. Burke is not the sum and summit of conservative thought any more than Reagan was the sum and summit of conservative politics. Refusing to engage in contemporary thinking about moral or political philosophy does an enormous disservice to everyone. Analyzing a contemporary American Democrat using the political thoughts of an 18th century Enlgish Whig is preposterous. Surely new, serious thinking has occurred in the past 230 years, no?

So punditry seems to me to illustrate a stunted, whithered view of education in the United States. No one's saying George Will or E.J. Dionne needs to be an academic; but reading widely and critically would be a good thing.

On Pundits

Let me first define a "pundit" as "someone who writes about politics."

Do pundits read anything other than (1) other pundits, and (2) newspapers? I wonder this because lots of punditry is really bad. And the reference points for punditry tends to be other punditry; thus a blogger on National Review's "Corner" will reference some other conservative blogger, or lambaste some liberal blogger, or cite to the Washington Post or New York times and make some vague reference to "bias."

Am I wrong about this?

Does this serve readers well? Is this intellectually honest or intellectually stunting? It seems to me that there's nothing really wrong with scribbling solely about politics and party; but in order for that writing to be good -- that is, in order for it to be analytically or otherwise insightful -- it can't simply exist in a pundit vacuum.

It seems to me that one of the drawbacks of "the blogosphere" is that it gives pundits the illusion of reading widely, when in fact certain narrow insights, conventional wisdom, etc. are being repeated over and over again and so the cleverness arises either from the super-subtle insight, or from the same thing being said in more clever fashion.

I like Andrew Sullivan, almost despite myself. His writing can betray a certain amount of self-absorption, but I can't fault him for intellectual honesty. And while he somtimes succumbs to the easy dramatic writing flourish, that's not hard to forgive because he tends to write very clearly and his view is extremely well-informed. He's not just reading political bloggers; he seems to read everyone. I think that matters, so that he has not only Tom Friedman's latest column in mind, but also Oakshott or Foucault or Sen. And he seems as interested and curious about science, religion, and philosphy as he is about politics. That combination makes for great reading, so the flaws are forgivable.

Thus on the internet, as in the rest of written life, the better writers tend to be the better readers.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

On Being a Parent

I often avoid reading comments to posts because, frankly, I get depressed. I get depressed because of poor grammar and syntax; I get depressed because of people's perpetual misreading (intentional or otherwise) of the text on which they are commenting; I get depressed because you can tell that only a "certain kind" of reader visits a site (for example, lots of lefties read the Atlantic blogs and leave comments that would lead you to believe that there isn't a conservative soul left on the planet); I get depressed because, rather than engage each other, people spew venom (in part because, it seems, people are incapable of the kind of good-faith reading and listening that comes with honest debate).

Sometimes, though, I get depressed because it seems like there is such a wide gulf between what I believe and think and what other believe and think.

Like about being a parent. I read this post, which comments on a study suggesting that the childless are "happier" than parents.

Now, I'm a parent of two. I put "happier" in quotes above not because I disbelieve the results of the study so much as because it's not clear to me what the "happiness" is that we are measuring. Aristotle commented in his Nichomachean Ethics that we can talk about happiness in different senses; in one sense, happiness can consist of pleasure, as opposed to pain; in another, it can consist of a kind of state-of-being, in which momentary pleasures and pains are far less important than one's attitude in approaching the world. (This is an admitted gloss.)

I have no idea whether the average childless person is really happier than the average parent. I wonder, for example, whether the 27-year-old childless person living in Manhattan and doing the things that young people do might be more immediately happier than the 27-year old living in Manhattan who's married and has a couple of small kids. No doubt the former gets to enjoy the city a lot more; the latter spends his Sundays changing diapers and trying for hours to either get his kids in the car or to have them take naps.

But what about the 77 year old grandfather, compared to the 77-year old childless person? How do we compare this? How do we quantify the different levels of happiness? Aren't there profound questions of loneliness, perhaps regret, that we have to discuss?

In any event, the really sad thing is to read some of the comments in this post, such as commenters claiming that parents are really somehow rationalizing their happiness, because childless people are so happy and they don't have to deal with the stress and anxiety that comes with children.

There is certainly stress and anxiety that comes with having children; no parent will deny this. But there's also a profound love that a parent has for his child that cannot be mimicked or replaced with anything else that life has to offer. I can't describe it except to say that it is beautiful in a way nothing else is. In that way -- to come back to Aristotle -- the day-to-day stress and anxiety that comes from having kids is far less meaningful that the all-encompassing love that permeates your life.

A childless person will never understand this -- which is not a criticism, but an observation. It would be nice, however, if those who are childless thought for a second about being in a parents' shoes before commenting on the value of raising children -- a subject about which they know nothing.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The Sin of Polylingualism

This seems to be a non sequitur:

Barack Obama said during a town hall meeting in Georgia on Tuesday: "It’s embarrassing when Europeans come over here, they all speak English, they speak French, they speak German. And then we go over to Europe and all we can say is merci beaucoup." . . .

So if Obama is embarrassed by Americans who can't speak French or German or Spanish, is he embarrassed by immigrants to the United States who can't speak English?

Obama's point is that we can't have an outstanding educational system when we don't seek to teach languages. Since he's running for president of the United States and not the president of a non-English speaking country that sends lots of its population here, it would make sense for him to focus on the U.S. And anyway, I would imagine that what he says about the educational system in the U.S. would hold for any other country that wants to create the world's best educational system.

In any event, ours is not a poor country that sends its population to a rich country in search of jobs, or a conflict-ridden country whose population seeks other shores for safety. We're rich and peaceful. So even if other countries do not have the resources to better their educational systems, why shouldn't we channel our resources into a stronger educational system?

There seems to be a knee-jerk reaction among some that any comparisons drawn to Europe or Europeans in a way that criticizes the U.S. is somehow unpatriotic or snobbish. Leaving aside for a moment that this reaction bespeaks an uncritical kind of patriotism -- American is superior, don't blame America first, we bailed out Europe, they're socialists, look at their unemployment rates, etc. -- it's also unfortunate from a practical perspective: just as we embrace the federal system of government because the states can experiment with policies that, if successful, can be exported to other states or nationally, so too can we look to other countries who have tackled problems successfully. Why we can't learn from the examples set by other countries is beyond me.

Finally, the nativist, anti-immigrant sentiment in McCormack's post is unmistakable. The implicit argument is that immigrants should learn English (dammit)! But again, this has nothing to do with whether American children would do well to be polylingual.

Defending Matthew Yglesias

There has been some chatter on some righty blogs about Matt Yglesias's bona fides as a patriot. James Kirchick wondered whether we can now question Yglesias' patriotism. Mark Hemingway at the Corner tries to take him to task for misunderstanding what patriotism is, as does Armed Liberal, who thinks Yglesias is essentially equating the Celtics with the United States.

All of this is pretty silly. First, Kirchick, Hemingway, and AL don't really seem to understand Yglesias' argument; it's not that patriotism is "bad"; it's that the patriot can't really talk to the non-patriot in a way that's going to persuade the non-patriot to his point of view (to use an example, the American flag-waver won't convince the Chinese flag-waver to drop his flag and start waving the stars and stripes). This has to do with the nature of patriotism, not with the nature of patriotism's object. If patriotism is a sentiment of solidarity, enthusiasm, and affection, then the analogy to sports fandom is apt. But it's misreading Yglesias to think that he's accordingly equating a country with a sports' team. He's not.

Second, bloggers seem to be misreading the very provocative notion that Yglesias makes that we might be living in a better world today if the American Revolution had never happened, and if the colonists had instead found some political solution to the problems with the Crown. This is of course anathema to many conservatives, since it challenges the central myth that America's founding was providential, the U.S. has been an unalloyed force for good in the world, etc. The truth is, Yglesias' counterfactual is really very thought-provoking if you dig into it. Would WWI (and thus WWII) have happened if the colonies had remained a part of GB? Would slavery have died peacefully, and sooner? If we could have lived in an English-speaking world without slavery by the 1830s and not shed blood over the question, and if we could have avoided the two greatest calamities to have befallen the modern world, how can that not be a net good?

Third, the whole argument is pretty unseemly. I do not understand how or why some find it necessary to, like an Inquisitor, inspect whether someone is a real patriot simply because he posits an interesting historical question and makes an insightful comment about the nature of patriotism. Note that in none of these posts does Yglesias say we live in a terrible country; but even if he did, why isn't it enough to simply engage in the merits?

On this score, I will note that the BHTV argument between Yglesias and Kirchick is telling. Note that Kirchick's tack is to (1) question Yglesias, (2) rather than engage Yglesias on the merits, question him further, (3) back off and offer some limited agreement with Yglesias, and then (4)move on. This is a good illustration of why the attacks of "anti-patriotism" on Yglesias' rather thoughtful post are vacuous.