“I’m not sure I’ve ever talked to someone quite like you.”

Sean Illing

I’ve taught at a couple universities, and I’ve got plenty of criticisms of higher education, but I still don’t think the answer is to scale back education altogether. I think we have to continually reshape it and improve it, and that means mapping it to the skills our society needs but also reaffirming our commitment to a broad-based liberal democratic education. If we can’t do that, if we’re not willing to do that, then I’d argue we’ve given up on the whole project of liberal democracy.

Bryan Caplan

You have a very interesting perspective, Sean. I’m not sure I’ve ever talked to someone quite like you, so it’s great. What you’re saying sounds really good. The issue is how to do it. Cutting waste is easy and transparent. But making things better is really hard and, in order to do it, you’ve got to trust a bunch of people who have already really screwed up, and that sounds imprudent to me.

Why this economist things public education is mostly pointless

Caplan just researched and wrote a 400-page book literally titled The Case Against Education, and he has never before talked to someone with Illing’s perspective? I don’t care how many citations Caplan has in his book — if he’s never heard someone make the argument that public education is a cornerstone of a healthy liberal democracy, then he has simply not done his homework.


The supreme culprit.

The Ad:

The Context:

Entropy, agency, and determinism.

Nothing is more characteristically American about science fiction than its explicit activism and the faith which its writers have expressed that events can and will be moved in desirable directions by a strong-minded people. Yet entropy is a law of nature standing athwart the history that such people might make—and a law not so easily finessed with a vaguely defined ‘warp drive’ as is Einstein’s universal speed limit. […]

Although he defined his own personal faith as Deist, Campbell’s own opinion of human nature added to an Old Testament view of divine justice a very Augustinian sense of human depravity, a Puritanical acceptance of Apocalypse as no more than people deserved. Similarly mixed were his views on the consequences of science and technology. They were at once the highly desirable goal of human struggle, the producers of the mechanized luxury of decadence, and the revealers of entropy with all its terrors for the rationalist.

The ultimate inevitability of entropy made Campbell a determinist about human history, despite his personal distaste for determinism and all his attempts to deny that he was a determinist. The attempts at denial, moreover, were rooted in what was most conventional about his Americanism: problem-solving activism, optimism, hope (if not necessarily faith) in the ability of the right kind of people to master their physical environment.[…]

Left to themselves [in a closed system], Campbell was saying, people cannot reform, rebuild, or revitalize their own lives, their own societies. That has to be done for them—or to them.

–Albert I. Berger, The Magic That Works: John W. Campbell and the American Response to Technology (1993), pp. 27, 31-32

White-hot joy.

This way of playing caters to what most people actually want out of game nights: to unwind, to avoid boredom and humiliation, and to end the night as friends. One of my current favorites, for instance, is a game called Biblios, in which each player takes on the role of an abbot seeking to amass the greatest possible library of sacred books. Buying up Boardwalk and Park Place, seizing Asia, sinking an opponent’s battleship: These are all fine for children. But for adults, none of it compares to the white-hot joy of creating a well-functioning library.

–Jonathan Kay, The Invasion of the German Board Games

Not what you’d call “a reader.”

Ahead of the election, the editors of this magazine wrote that the Republican candidate “appears not to read.” Before the inauguration, Trump told Axios, “I like bullets or I like as little as possible. I don’t need, you know, 200-page reports on something that can be handled on a page. That I can tell you.” In February, The New York Times reported that National Security Council members had been instructed to keep policy papers to a single page and include lots of graphics and maps. Mother Jones reviewed classified information indicating Trump’s briefings were a quarter as long as Barack Obama’s.

In March, Reuters reported that briefers had strategically placed the president’s name in as many paragraphs of briefing documents as possible so as to attract his fickle attention. In September, the Associated Press reported that top aides had decided the president needed a crash course on America’s role in the world and arranged a 90-minute, map-and-chart heavy lecture at the Pentagon. And amid the hype over Wolff’s book, MSNBC host Joe Scarborough wrote a column Friday saying that in September 2015, he confronted Trump over poor debate performances, saying, “Can you read?” Met with silence, Scarborough pressed again: “I’m serious, Donald. Do you read? If someone wrote you a one-page paper on a policy, could you read it?” Trump replied by brandishing a Bible from his mother and saying he read it all the time—probably a self-aware joke, given Trump’s proud impiety and displayed ignorance of the Bible.

The Scarborough anecdote is the strangest of these. This is not only because Scarborough held on to the story for nearly a year and a half, and continued to hype Trump’s candidacy on air and advise him privately. (As James Fallows notes, the real scandal of the Wolff book is that so many people have such grave misgivings about Trump but have kept their heads down.) It is also unfortunate because Trump is clearly, in strictly literal terms, literate. He displays his basic grasp of the language—if in sloppy, often typo-ridden ways—on Twitter on a roughly daily basis. Such stories, by dint of their hyperbole, offer a bit of a distraction from how serious the problem is.

–David A. Graham, The President Who Doesn’t Read

“It could make some people angry,” she said.

One student in my class this semester, a teenager, an African American, happened not to have this typical demeanor. He didn’t make an effort to hide his lack of knowledge or to downplay that it mattered. Astonishment, disturbance–you could see him working things out. He wasn’t afraid to ask questions, though often, by the time he got around to asking one, so much time had passed that I had to backtrack a ways to supply an answer. As I talked about Hemings and Jefferson, I saw these operations going on across his face. We were almost finished and moving on to the next bit, when he frowned and raised his hand. “Did he rape her?” he asked.

I repeated the fact of their age difference. I reminded that Jefferson owned Hemings. Then I said, “That’s a complicated question that I can’t answer satisfactorily. But the question you ask is the right one.”

From the other side of the room came another question, again from an African American, this time a young woman. She was more sophisticated than her classmate. She entered into the class with clearer concerns and seemed to be in some early stage of politicization. “Why don’t they teach us this?” she said. She was speaking low, almost muttering, but I heard her and had the impression that the rest of the class did, too.

“I am teaching it to you!” I said with a chuckle, answering maybe too quickly and defensively, having felt a tick of tension rise in the room.

“No, I mean,” she said, still speaking low, “before now.”

This time I let the comment have its full weight. “Why do you think that’s important?” I asked.

“It could make some people angry,” she said.

–Anthony Chaney, The Realest Moment of the Semester

This hip, new slavery.

Wu argues that we need a balance between two kinds of attention in order to be healthy: the transitory kind that happens in natural shifts of focus during daily life, and the sustained kind, such as when we are reading a book. But such sustained attention is increasingly ceded to the deliberate and chronic summoning of transitory attention by digital technologists. Instead of a long, uninterrupted read, we are being trained to consume information piecemeal from a medley of screens. This fragmented attention results in fragmented minds, producing people who are unable to focus or think effectively. The outcome is exhaustion through overstimulation of our mind’s neuronal responses, thus weakening our executive faculties and our ability to make coherent and independent decisions.

When our attention is lured, herded, and commandeered in such a way, our full human potential is profoundly subverted. “Our life experience,” William James once said, “will equal what we have paid attention to, whether by choice or default.” We become what we attend to — nothing more, nothing less. A steady and exclusive stream of reality TV, entertainment gossip, social media chatter, and “breaking news” about the latest celebrity scandal or Trump’s most recent tweets — all endlessly cycling into each other — turns us into the bland clickbait of the attention harvesters. Yet, though we justifiably consider the enslavement of bodies a terrible wrong, we willingly surrender our minds for the profit of others. This new, almost hip, kind of slavery is sought, not fought.

–John Bell, John Zada, The Great Attention Heist