Stanley Fish, Wrong Again

May 26, 2008

I generally don’t agree with Mr. Fish much.

Today is no exception.

Fish writes about the University of Colorado at Boulder, which is proposing to create a “Chair in Conservative Thought and Policy.” Fish then quotes a local newspaper which says the University is going to bring in high-profile conservatives. While these are similarly worded, it should be noted that a program to teach conservative thought and another to hire conservatives could be very different things.

But how left-leaning is the University and its environment?

How then does it lean left? The answer appears a little further down in the story when it is reported that emeritus professor Ed Rozek surveyed the Boulder faculty and found that out of 825, only 23 were registered Republicans.

Stanley Fish then goes on to basically say that good professors don’t let their politics into the classroom, so it doesn’t matter whether the instructors are liberal or not. Bullshit.

I just spent five years in an institution where almost all of the professors are conservatives–politically, socially, and theologically. On all three of those points the personal views of my professors inevitably affected what was taught and how it was taught. This has not always been a negative–I think there is great educational benefit to being educated in an environment where you are profoundly uncomfortable, though the social benefit is less stellar.

I imagine that my experience somewhat resembles that of a conservative student at a left-leaning institution of higher education. One interesting difference is that at Christian U, where I went to school, many of the professors and students vociferously decry the left-leaning nature of state schools and the lack of freedom of thought. This is of course ironic because they have chosen to teach at an institution that redresses that balance by creating an educational environment that is even less balanced.

Of course, there were instructors at my school who didn’t fit the mold politically (some), socially (a few more possibly?) and maybe theologically. Of course, those who were out-of-the-box theologically were only so in narrow terms, as my school required a specific Church membership for all its faculty, so anyone holding too diverse of views would have to be lying to themselves or to Christian U to teach there. To be fair, the professors and administrators with the largest number of differences with the institutional status quo tended to be the best teachers inside and outside the classroom. I think that’s in part because the type of person who chooses to teach at an institution where their view is in the minority likely has a lot of moral and intellectual integrity.

I think it is as important for a university dominated by liberal faculty to encourage the hiring of conservatives and the teaching of conservative thought as it is for places like where I went to school to diversify their points of view. Stanley Fish is dead wrong in thinking that one can keep one’s biases from showing through in your teaching.

For a more intelligent perspective on the issue, check out some writings by Dr. Burke at Swarthmore:

They’re motivated to groupthink by the institutional organization of academic life. The same forces that help academics to produce knowledge and scholarship are the forces which produce unwholesome close-mindedness and inbred self-satisfied attitudes. These forces would act on conservatives as well were we to magically remove the current professoriate and replace them with registered Republicans. They do act already on academics who operate in disciplines where certain kinds of political conservatism are more orthodox, or in institutional contexts, like religious universities, where conservative values are expressly connected to institutional missions.

And another:

I was and remain surprised at how reluctant many people participating in this discussion are to just say, “Yes, in some disciplines, an identifiable conservative may be treated very poorly”. Most importantly, in most of the humanities there’s a default assumption that everyone around the table more or less broadly can be classed as a liberal, and a certain stunned incredulity when someone departs from that assumption.

I think this is a perfectly good explanation for why institutions like Christian U need to exist in the first place:

Why do conservatives care about the humanities at all? The answer might be that for both the cultural right and left, the humanities or more broadly, mass culture, are an important alibi for explaining their failure to outright win the culture wars of the past twenty years. Rather than asking, “What about our views is just not appealing and may never be appealing to the majority of Americans”, they would prefer to assume that those views would be appealing if not for some partisan interference in the natural course of events. For the cultural right, higher education in general and the academic humanities in particular are the boogeyman of choice, to which I can only suggest that they’re vastly, gigantically overstating the possible influence of those institutions. I think the same thing is thought about mass culture in the other direction. In both cases, there’s a systematic effort here to avoid thinking the unthinkable thought, that maybe, just maybe, the majority of people have thought about your view of things and they just don’t like it, for good and considered reasons.

Of course, there are reasons why one could never admit this to oneself.


The Draw of Dermatology?

March 20, 2008

This piece in the New York Times focuses on a married couple, both Harvard Medical School students, who are in their fourth year and waiting to find out about their residency placements. Like many medical students around the nation, they’re competing for competitive placements in specialty fields instead of going into less lucrative (and possibly less intellectually stimulating?) fields such as family practice and internal medicine.

And the competition is expensive:

Already saddled with about $330,000 in education loans, they borrowed $20,000 more so they could fly around the country this winter for about two dozen residency interviews each. All told, each applied to 90 such training programs.

The article makes me a little sad in general. I had a conversation at CGI U with a med school student who warned me about the “vortex” of med school. Paraphrased: “Everyone’s the same. You get to med school all idealistic, wanting to help people and stuff. Then you spend years and years studying and working, and you see the people ahead of you getting money. You see the doctors with the nice cars and comfortable lives, and you start to wonder when you’re getting yours? And you get into so much debt that you realize you have to practice, and practice well if you want to get out of that hole.”

I’m certainly idealistic about why I want to go to medical school. In fact, the struggle for me is deciding between larger scale health policy work–doing research, designing disease control programs, advocacy, etc.–and traditional clinical work, or how to balance both. I’ve never seen myself as one to get into private practice, or really even treating patients full-time as a traditional clinician. But the vortex sucks many people in.

The problem is ultimately not with the medical students who are drawn to dermatology and plastic surgery for the better pay. Medical students will inevitably be drawn toward the specialties that combine interesting work with the highest pay. From the NYTimes again:

“It is an unfortunate circumstance that you can spend an hour with a patient treating them for diabetes and hypertension and make $100, or you can do Botox and make $2,000 in the same time,” said Dr. Eric C. Parlette, 35, a dermatologist in Chestnut Hill, Mass., who chose his field because he wanted to perform procedures, like skin-cancer surgery and cosmetic treatments, while keeping regular hours and earning a rewarding salary.

The market simply isn’t working here. We need more (many more!) primary care physicians. There’s a lot more demand for services there. But people who have the money to pay more for cosmetic treatments and surgery skew the demand away from those who don’t have the money to get adequate treatment for more life-threatening conditions like diabetes and high blood pressure.

I’m not sure what the solution is either. I know it would need to be a large-scale systemic change; merely getting pre-med students to read about Paul Farmer isn’t going to change everyone. Maybe having a single-payer system where doctors are compensated as much or more for basic services as they are for cosmetic services? Or maybe a loan-repayment situation where medical school is even more expensive, but all loans are automatically repaid by the government for those not going into specialties. Who knows. Suggestions?


Quoting King

July 8, 2007

I’m currently reading Shane Claiborne’s Irresistible Revolution. I’m sure I’ll blog on it more fully once I’ve completed my leisurely perusal, but for now I’d like to highlight some quotes Shane brought to my attention. These are from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “A Time to Break Silence,” a speech given on the Vietnam war in 1967 at a meeting of “Clergy and Laity Concerned” at Riverside Church in New York City. MLK’s concerns went beyond his (incredible) devotion to civil rights in our country, to an even broader view of social justice. And it’s always good to reflect on values that should bring rich and poor, Christian and humanist, theist and athiest together.

mlkbeyondvietnam.jpg

[It became clear that the war in Vietnam] was sending their sons and their brothers and their husbands to fight and to die in extraordinarily high proportions relative to the rest of the population. We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem. And so we have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools.

Funny how these words still ring true today:

As I have walked among the desperate, rejected, and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they ask — and rightly so — what about Vietnam? They ask if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today — my own government.

And here a call for a brotherhood of man, rooted in King’s own Christianity, though it could as easily be read as a call for a global humanism (in fact, King might have been closer to that than most of the Christians we know):

This I believe to be the privilege and the burden of all of us who deem ourselves bound by allegiances and loyalties which are broader and deeper than nationalism and which go beyond our nation’s self-defined goals and positions. We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for the victims of our nation and for those it calls “enemy,” for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers.

King also has this quote from a Buddhist leader on the war in Vietnam:

Each day the war goes on the hatred increases in the heart of the Vietnamese and in the hearts of those of humanitarian instinct. The Americans are forcing even their friends into becoming their enemies. It is curious that the Americans, who calculate so carefully on the possibilities of military victory, do not realize that in the process they are incurring deep psychological and political defeat. The image of America will never again be the image of revolution, freedom, and democracy, but the image of violence and militarism.

If you will, rephrase that quote for me with Iraq in mind instead of Vietnam (not the analogy is a perfect one, but analogies never are… this particular quote however makes a useful point):

Each day the war goes on the hatred increases in the heart of the Iraqis and in the hearts of those of humanitarian instinct. The Americans are forcing even their friends into becoming their enemies. It is curious that the Americans, who calculate so carefully on the possibilities of military victory, do not realize that in the process they are incurring deep psychological and political defeat. The image of America will never again be the image of revolution, freedom, and democracy, but the image of violence and militarism.

And here he waxes prophetic. One could make the same claim today about US militarism:

The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit, and if we ignore this sobering reality…and if we ignore this sobering reality, we will find ourselves organizing “clergy and laymen concerned” committees for the next generation.

And another gem:

On the one hand, we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.

And here’s another quote, though this time I’ve replaced “Communism” with “terrorism”:

This kind of positive revolution of values is our best defense against terrorism. War is not the answer. Terrorism will never be defeated by the use of atomic bombs or nuclear weapons. Let us not join those who shout war and, through their misguided passions, urge the United States to relinquish its participation in the United Nations. These are days which demand wise restraint and calm reasonableness. We must not engage in a negative antiterrorism, but rather in a positive thrust for democracy, realizing that our greatest defense against terrorism is to take offensive action in behalf of justice. We must with positive action seek to remove those conditions of poverty, insecurity, and injustice, which are the fertile soil in which the seed of terrorism grows and develops.


Freeganism

June 21, 2007

The NYT has an article on Freegans–people who reject consumerism and try to live off other’s trash.

Anthropologically speaking, it’s fascinating. Freeganism is certainly unsustainable (ironically) without the rampant consumerism of American society. The best metaphor is that of “scavengers of the developed world,” found on the front page of the NYT article.

While I may be too much of a cynic to find the lifestyle that appealing, all of it comes from a realization I can certainly sympathize with:

“Most people work 40-plus hours a week at jobs they don’t like to buy things they don’t need.”

May I always do work I love, and may I not buy crap I don’t need. Amen.


Obama’s Father’s Day

June 19, 2007

Eugene Robinson has a brief but excellent piece on TruthDig about Obama’s speech for Father’s Day. Fatherhood is, of course, a major theme for Obama, who’s own black father was absent. If you haven’t already read Dreams from My Father, I highly recommend it.

When anyone runs for office, the question of motivation immediately and inevitably (as it should) rises to the surface. Is Obama talking about black men and responsibility because he cares, or to appeal to the white voter base that’s wondering just how black he is? Robinson wonders too:

Is Obama speaking to African-Americans, or is he really trying to reach those whites who believe that most of black America’s problems are self-inflicted? I’m paid to be skeptical, but I think something much deeper than political calculation is involved here. One revelation that comes with spending time with politicians is that they actually have core beliefs. To cite one example, John Edwards may be a multimillionaire but I can’t doubt his sincerity when he talks about poverty. I’ve seen him volunteer in a soup kitchen without first summoning the television cameras. He grew up poor, and the experience has never left him.

One can care about an issue and also use it for political advantage. This is what we as voters actually want–for candidates to spend time talking about issues that happen to be both important to us and meaningful to them. I like this man more and more.

Obama grew up without his black father. It doesn’t take a psychologist to discern the impact this absence had. He has explained it himself in his books, at considerable length. He talked about it Friday in the fatherhood speech, saying that his mother—struggling to raise two children as a single parent—at times needed to rely on food stamps to make it through the month. He also spoke with admiration of his wife Michelle’s father, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis yet supported his family by going to work every day at a water filtration plant, “even when he had to rely on a walker to get him there.”

And Obama also pointed out some economic undercurrents I hadn’t really though about:

There’s nothing startling about Obama’s analysis of the macroeconomic forces that contribute to the problem of absent black fathers. Blue-collar jobs that once paid well and offered security, such as his father-in-law’s job at the plant, have largely disappeared. “In the last six years, over 300,000 black males have lost jobs in the manufacturing sector,” Obama said. The forces of globalization are inexorable. Inner-city schools don’t prepare students to compete in today’s economy.

In general I like globalization because I see it bringing jobs to the poor in the developing world. I understand that there’s an effect on blue-collar workers in the United States, but I tend to see protectionism as a short-sighted and inefficient solution. We have to get those workers better jobs, not set up artificial barriers to their jobs going to more cost-effective, equally-needy overseas workers. But I’m certainly torn by the affect the current situation has. Notably, Obama recently had a minor political gaff that served to bring the outsourcing issue back onto the table for the Democratic candidates. And what does Obama–former overseas resident (Indonesia) that he is–say?

“While it’s not possible to stop globalization in its tracks, what we can do is make sure we have a government that’s looking out for our workers,” Obama said. “We can do more to create a government that’s creating quality jobs here in America, and we can do more to create a government that’s helping workers who lose their jobs.” In Newton, Obama spoke before about 300 people and promised to increase federal grants and job training programs to communities dealing with job losses.

I’m down with that.


Digital Ethnography

June 10, 2007

I like this. I don’t think it says anything new, but it’s certainly said in a neat way, and makes some connections you may not have made. Possibly with a pinch of naive optimist as well. And sweet music.


The Epitomal Transhumanist

January 19, 2007

This video of Ray Kurzweil (about 23 minutes long) is an excerpt from an annual seminar called TED Talks (for Technology, Entertainment and Design) that features leaders from a variety of fields. While most of the talks seem to focus on society or technology, the perspectives are quite broad: Al Gore, Rick Warren, Daniel Dennett, Bono, and Richard Dawkins have all graced its stage in recent years.

Ray Kurzweil is a prominent transhumanist, and has one of the most optimistic views of technology possible. One of his more recent books is The Singularity is Near, which describes his view that not only is the eventual surpassing of humanity by artificial intelligence inevitable, it is also nearer than we think. In Kurzweil’s view this process will include the merging of our own personal consciousness with the advanced capabilities of computers to eventually be able to process more quickly, analyze more astutely, retrieve data more accurately, and so on. In Kurzweil’s view, what truly distinguishes homo sapiens is not our current biological status, history, or accomplishments, but our impetus to transcend our limitations. Technology merely offers us a new vehicle for our transcendence.

Regardless of whether you embrace his views wholeheartedly (they seem a bit optimistic even for me) or you feel a shiver of terror or silent mockery slipping down your Luddite spine, Kurzweil’s thought should be examined because of his influence. He’s a successful inventor and author, and a prominent figure among futurists and transhumanists. Here’s a summary of sorts of Kurzweil’s TED talk:

Can we predict the future? While certain specifics of technological progress are very hard to predict, overall trends are predictable, and they’re also exponential. Growth in one technology enables and promotes growth in another technology. 50 years to adopt telephones, 8 years to adopt cell phones. TV took decades, but new technologies- like the internet- have taken off much faster.

Kurzweil then makes an analogy to biological evolution. The evolution of genetic material (DNA/RNA) took billions of years, but once certain genes were in place (or the common “tool-kit,” as evo-devo would put it) more rapid (~10 million years) change, like the Cambrian “explosion” (a term that is disliked in many circles) can occur. But as the first technology-creating species, our culture has allowed us to “evolve” on a level that is exponential in comparison to biological evolution (which is one reason we have a hard time understanding evolutionary time scales).

It took tens of thousands of years to develop agriculture, then thousands to move to more centralized forms of government (those two are arguably related, but the direction of causality is disputed), civilization led to quicker technological development, etc. The last 500 years of technological growth were incredible, but the last century has been even more impressive- bringing us widely available automobiles, radios, TVs, airplanes, medical technology, computers, Internet, not to mention space flight and an incredible plethora of new weapons systems with which to butcher each other.

This emphasis on technological development as an exponential process is a major theme of Kurzweil’s work. But, he points out, people always begin doubting when exponential growth for future technology is predicted. This growth is a result of

“worldwide chaotic behavior.. You would think it would be a very erratic process, yet you have a very smooth outcome… Just as we can’t predict what one molecule in a gas will do- it’s hopeless to predict a single molecule- yet we can predict the properties of the whole gas using thermodynamics very accurately. It’s the same thing here- we can’t predict any particular product, but the result of this whole worldwide chaotic, unpredictable activity of competition in the evolutionary process of technology is very predictable, and we can predict these trends very far into the future.”

Kurzweil also talks about the suboptimal nature of much human biology (so much for perfect design). For example, our metabolism, which leads us to hold onto every calorie, is a throwback to our hunter-gatherer days and is something that we might like to modify to prevent obesity in developed nations. And another problem, which seems to be Kurzweil’s main fascination: “Long life spans (as in more than 30) weren’t selected for.”

While some of his examples are sketchier than others, the idea of an engineered erythrocyte (red blood cell) that could increase oxygen capacity greatly is particular interesting. In my view, Kurzweil has a tendency to exaggerate about some possibilities, but then again, exponential growth will always appear as an exaggeration to those in a linear-growth mindset.

I think more important than any individual predictions about technological progress that Kurzweil makes (like reverse-engineering the brain by 2020), his main point stands: the progress of technology throughout history has been accelerating. The main question tends to be whether we’ll be able to harness these technologies to make life more certain, more pleasurable, more equitable, more eco-friendly, and more connected (and therefore more meaningful on some level) or to just wipe each other off the planet.