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.