The golden bricks

If the ability to read, and think, critically is the primary currency secondary education needs to invest in, then the disfigured mathematical percentage of how many students read how much becomes less important. I’m not sure it really matters if students read all of The Great Gatsby, or Their Eyes Were Watching God, or The House on Mango Street, Macbeth, etc. Of course it’s nice if they do, and it’s nice if they go out into the world with a complex sense of Gatsby’s dream, of Janie’s epiphany, of Esperanza’s journey, Macbeth’s predicament, etc., but I think it’s more important that they know what reading looks like, that they know it as an act of meaningful aggression. We’re not in the business of creating English majors, nice as it would be to fill the world with such people. But until Birnam Wood do come unto Dunsinane, I’ll take empathetic, critical thinkers as a stop-gap. Reading in high school is not about, or shouldn’t be about, numbers of pages; it should be about a way of thinking, a way of seeing. For that, we can focus on certain passages, the certain, crucial passages that most books build to—the golden bricks. As teachers, we can fill in the rest of the building. It’s the skill of reading itself that’s the important thing, perhaps the only thing.

–Giles Scott, High School Reading as an Act of Meaningful Aggression


Our love affair with dissent

What’s interesting about Trump is that he won, not that his strain of politics is new. It’s always been around. Let’s not go wild trying to figure out what happened: The crazy train of American history happened. The lineage that winds from Andrew Jackson to Tom Watson to Joe McCarthy to George Wallace to Pat Buchanan to Trump is not just “conservative,” nor is it just “working class” in any way an intellectually driven conservative or Marxist or liberal would recognize or celebrate. The conservative/liberal divide is a deeply tenuous construct. Looking for a populist savior, however, is bedrock Americana.

Historians need to reconcile their intellectual frameworks with a “real-world” America that is a messy stew of populist, communitarian, reactionary, progressive, racist, patriarchal, and nativist ingredients. Any historical era has its own mix of these elements, which play in different ways. We should embrace Thompson’s admonition to understand class as a continuing, sometimes volatile happening, and not be blinded by our love affair with dissent as a left-wing movement. Trump voters are dissenters, after all.

–Jefferson Cowie, How Labor Scholars Missed the Trump Revolt

Always already guilty

There is always something new, as my students understood, that you aren’t supposed to say. And worst of all, you often don’t find out about it until after you have said it. The term political correctness, which originated in the 1970s as a form of self-mockery among progressive college students, was a deliberately ironic invocation of Stalinism. By now we’ve lost the irony but kept the Stalinism—and it was a feature of Stalinism that you could be convicted for an act that was not a crime at the time you committed it. So you were always already guilty, or could be made to be guilty, and therefore were always controllable.

–William Deresiewicz, On Political Correctness

Quis repugnet ipsam repugnatiam?

As the university representative announced that Murray and Stanger would move to a different location, the crowd began shouting, “Where are you going?”

Somehow, they found out. Because when Murray and Stanger finished their dialogue, they found themselves surrounded by protesters. The protesters—some of whom were wearing masks and may not have been Middlebury students—began pushing them. When Stanger tried to shield Murray, according a Middlebury spokesman, a protester grabbed her hair and twisted her neck.

Murray, Stanger and their escorts made it to a waiting car, but the protesters “pounded on it, rocked it back and forth, and jumped onto the hood,” according to The New York Times. One took a large traffic sign, attached to a concrete base, and placed it in front of the car to prevent it from leaving.

Finally, Murray and Stanger got away. They had planned to eat dinner at a local restaurant, but, upon learning that the protesters planned to disrupt their meal, left town altogether. Stanger later went to the hospital, where she received a neck brace.

–Peter Beinart, A Violent Attack on Free Speech at Middlebury

An actual press statement from our secretary of education:

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos released the following statement after meeting with presidents and chancellors of Historically Black Colleges and Universities at the White House:

A key priority for this administration is to help develop opportunities for communities that are often the most underserved. Rather than focus solely on funding, we must be willing to make the tangible, structural reforms that will allow students to reach their full potential.

Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) have done this since their founding. They started from the fact that there were too many students in America who did not have equal access to education. They saw that the system wasn’t working, that there was an absence of opportunity, so they took it upon themselves to provide the solution.

HBCUs are real pioneers when it comes to school choice. They are living proof that when more options are provided to students, they are afforded greater access and greater quality. Their success has shown that more options help students flourish.

Their counsel and guidance will be crucial in addressing the current inequities we face in education. I look forward to working with the White House to elevate the role of HBCUs in this administration and to solve the problems we face in education today.

Statement from Secretary of Education Betsey DeVos Following Listening Sessions with Historically Black College and University Leaders

The faceless inflexibility of platforms

A model of education tied to platforms rather than institutions may seem liberating at first — “I can learn everything I need to know at Khan Academy!” — but that sense of liberation will continue only insofar as users train themselves to ask the questions the platforms already know how to answer, and think the thoughts that the platforms are prepared to transmit.

Very few people will see any of this as problematic, and only those very few will look to work outside the shaping power of the dominant platforms. This means that such institution-building as they manage will have to happen on a small scale and within limited geographical areas. As far as I’m concerned that’s not the worst thing that could happen.

But the majority will accommodate themselves to the faceless inflexibility of platforms, and will become less and less capable of seeing the virtues of institutions, on any scale. One consequence of that accommodation, I believe, will be an increasing impatience with representative democracy, and an accompanying desire to replace political institutions with platform-based decision-making: referendums and plebiscites, conducted at as high a level as possible (national, or in the case of the EU, transnational). Which will bring, among other things, the exploitation of communities and natural resources by people who will never see or know anything about what they are exploiting.

–Alan Jacobs, platforms and institutions

Caliban’s triumph

The academic left interrogated the discourses of “truth” and “reason,” revealed the aporias thereof, exposed the inner workings of the power-knowledge regime, all in the name of social justice. I remember vividly Andrew Ross’s insistence, twenty-five years ago, that it was actually perfectly appropriate and consistent for a would-be revolutionary like him to have a tenured position at Princeton: “I teach in the Ivy League in order to have direct access to the minds of the children of the ruling classes.” It turns out that the children of the ruling classes learned their lessons well, so when they inherited positions in their fathers’ law firms they had some extra, and very useful, weapons in their rhetorical armory.

In precisely the same way, when, somewhat later, academic leftists preached that race and gender were the determinative categories of social analysis, members of the future alt-right were slouching in the back rows of their classrooms, baseball caps pulled down over their eyes, making no external motions but in their dark little hearts twitching with fervent agreement. […]

Sauce for the goose, sauce for the gander. It seems that we’ve all now learned the lessons that the academic left taught, and how’s that working out for us? The alt-right/Trumpistas are Caliban to the academic left’s Prospero: “You taught me language, and my profit on’t is, I know how to curse.”

–Alan Jacobs, lessons learned

You don’t even need the pretense of methodology.

“The best way to predict the future is to invent it,” computer scientist Alan Kay once famously said. I’d wager that the easiest way is just to make stuff up and issue a press release. I mean, really. You don’t even need the pretense of a methodology. Nobody is going to remember what you predicted. Nobody is going to remember if your prediction was right or wrong. Nobody – certainly not the technology press, which is often painfully unaware of any history, near-term or long ago – is going to call you to task. This is particularly true if you make your prediction vague – like “within our lifetime” – or set your target date just far enough in the future – “In fifty years, there will be only ten institutions in the world delivering higher education and Udacity has a shot at being one of them.”

Let’s consider: is there something about the field of computer science in particular – and its ideological underpinnings – that makes it more prone to encourage, embrace, espouse these sorts of predictions? Is there something about Americans’ faith in science and technology, about our belief in technological progress as a signal of socio-economic or political progress, that makes us more susceptible to take these predictions at face value? Is there something about our fears and uncertainties – and not just now, days before this Presidential Election where we are obsessed with polls, refreshing Nate Silver’s website obsessively – that makes us prone to seek comfort, reassurance, certainty from those who can claim that they know what the future will hold?

–Audrey Watters, The Best Way to Predict the Future is to Issue a Press Release

A place where aggression and consensus go together

Stanley Fish, lawyer and literary critic, is in truth about as left-wing as Donald Trump. Indeed, he is the Donald Trump of American academia, a brash, noisy entrepreneur of the intellect who pushes his ideas in the conceptual marketplace with all the fervour with which others peddle second-hand Hoovers. Unlike today’s corporate executive, however, who has scrupulously acquired the rhetoric of consensus and multiculturalism, Fish is an old-style, free-booting captain of industry who has no intention of clasping both of your hands earnestly in his and asking whether you feel comfortable with being fired. He fancies himself as an intellectual boot-boy, the scourge of wimpish pluralists and Nancy-boy liberals, and that ominous bulge in his jacket is not to be mistaken for a volume of Milton. […]

In the teeth of all such soppy consensus, Fish is a Hobbesian and Machiavellian who enjoys conflict, believes only in what he can taste and handle, and likes to win. He sees his dislike of universal essences as anti-Platonic, though much of the time this is just a high-toned way of saying that he has the outlook on life of an estate agent. It is unclear how winning and intolerance go together, since you cannot be said to have beaten a rival whom you have tethered to the starting blocks; but it is clear enough how this philosophy, which Fish implicitly recommends as universally valid, fits rather better with being the dean of a US university at the turn of the millennium than it does with being a sixth-century Scottish hermit.

To refer to Fish the Dean, however, is to reveal the fact that there are two Fishes, Little and Big. Little Fish is a sabre-rattling polemicist given to scandalously provocative pronouncements: truth is rhetoric, free speech is an illusion, unprincipled behaviour is best. Big Fish is the respectable academic who will instantly undercut the force of these utterances by insisting that they are descriptive rather than normative. Far from being radical recommendations, they simply describe what we do anyway without always knowing it, and ‘theory’, the Trumps of this world will be relieved to learn, thus has no effect whatsoever on practice. Anti-foundationalism is therefore unlikely to alienate the New York foundations, and Fish can buy his reputation as an iconoclast on the cheap.

Little Fish is in hot pursuit of a case which will succeed in alienating absolutely everyone; he is the cross-grained outsider who speaks up for minorities, and himself Jewish, comes from one such cultural margin. Big Fish, by contrast, has a consensual, good-boy disdain for rebels, whose behaviour is in his eyes just as convention-bound as those they lambast. It is fortunate for this schizoid character that there is a place where aggression and consensus go together. It is known as the US corporation, of which the campus is a microcosm. In academia, you can hammer your colleagues, safe in the knowledge that, since you all subscribe to the same professional rules, it doesn’t really mean a thing.

–Terry Eagleton, The Estate Agent, a review of Stanley Fish’s The Trouble with Principle (1999)

“Maybe for you, but not for the country.”

I think Black Lives Matter is, in the larger pattern of history, where Occupy energies went and what that Occupy moment gave way to. And Occupy understood itself as a re-manifestation and derivative of the Arab Spring. Each new formation does what a predecessor couldn’t do, didn’t know to do. It shifts to completely new populations and causes — but it preserves the continuity of a Movement. Occupy was beaten by police, both literally and figuratively, even though police had no real stake in its concerns; and maybe it was defeated too by a white bourgeois ethos. Black Lives Matter does what Occupy couldn’t, or wouldn’t; and it invites people into the Movement in a larger way, while pursuing its own necessary ends. I don’t know about the mood of the young people I see as a whole, but my mood is pretty optimistic, and optimistic in their presence above all. There are always new people coming into the world, and that means the possibility that they’ll see how this world is not the way it could be. Not the way it should be, to be worthy of them. I think this happens to be a singularly good time. Every time I read another headline, “Is the Country Coming Apart?,” I think, Maybe for you, but not for the country.

As for my students and the young, I sometimes do think they believe too much of what they hear without really pressing on it or sitting on it for a while. How could they not believe too much? It is very difficult to distinguish a true from a false authority. And you’ve been told so many things. I think you have to take it slow, and keep checking yourself. In the book, I mark a difference at one point between extraordinary revolt and ordinary defiance. It’s the latter which I think we are most in need of, and it’s within reach.

–Mark Greif interviewed by Greg Gerke, True and False Authorities