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 Varsity Sport of the Mind

April 11, 2008

I’m in St. Louis right now, where me and the other members of CU’s “College Bowl” team just checked into our hotel. Next we’ll be heading out to register for the NAQT quiz bowl national tournament. The questions are brutally hard, and the competition is brutally nerdy, so wish us luck.

Reading note: Today I had the pleasure of finishing Woodward and Bernstein’s All the President’s Men, which I’d been meaning to read to learn more about Nixon’s lovely Watergate antics (such a sweet, cuddly man) and now I’m starting in on Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. I like having travel time, as its about the only time I’ve been getting to read lately.

Thank you, Mr. Registrar (T-Minus 38 Days)

April 2, 2008

registrar registrar's office

There are now only 38 days between today and graduation day. Hurrah! I think I’ll be making intermittent countdown posts chronicling my last days here at Christian U (CU), my school. Because I go to college in my hometown, it’s difficult to separate my childhood and high school years from the time I spent in college, so the whole graduating-and-moving-away thing that I will be experiencing after college is really the first time I’ll have lived anywhere but this small town in Arkansas.

Anyway, as one step on the highway toward a diploma, I recently communicated with the registrar at CU. This is the person who checks to make sure you’ve taken every class you need before you graduate. Thankfully, I evidently took the right classes in my 10 semesters, so I get to graduate “on time” (ha).

I think being a registrar is probably a pretty thankless job. From the university side you’ve got pressure to check everything off and make sure everyone takes exactly what they’re required to take. But whenever you stop a student from graduating because they forgot to take that 1 hour kinesiology activity credit, that’s gotta piss people off.

So here’s to you Mr. Registrar, thanks for letting me out.

The Lucky One

March 27, 2008

Allison Krauss has a beautifully smooth and relaxing voice. Just listen:

Jonah Lehrer, Kanye West, and John Mayer

March 20, 2008


Jonah Lehrer of The Frontal Cortex spoke at the Clinton School last night, and it was great. I just reviewed Lehrer’s first book Proust was a Neuroscientist and was excited to hear him speak on the purposefully outrageous title “Kanye West Was a Neuroscientist.” I also had the privilege of introducing him. I had written out the introduction, but then cut it down quite a bit, so here’s the longer version I didn’t actually get to give:

I am a student of science. Science appeals to my practical side; it took us to the Moon and back, it let us map the human genome, and science helped us eradicate smallpox, all within my parents’ life spans. Science appeals to me because the reductionist technique is an incredible tool for fighting disease and gaining knowledge about the world we inhabit.

I started my day this morning with a lab for Advanced Genetics, where we’re studying Arabidopsis thaliana, a plant species so important that only genetics students have ever heard of it. This semester we undergrads have been using the elegant techniques of science to create new, if extremely specialized, knowledge about the world. The techniques of science and the philosophy of reductionism are so powerful that it’s tempting to apply them to every field of knowledge. But we need balance.

After my genetics lab I go to the daily Chorus rehearsal. Walking into the music building for Chorus is like crossing an invisible but impenetrable barrier between entire realms of knowledge and ways of knowing. Few of my friends in the science building are active in the arts, so I have a hard time explaining the irreducible experience of singing Brahms’ German Requiem with a group of talented musicians. And hardly anyone in Chorus would stay awake if I started talking about the routine glory I see in the polymerase chain reaction.

Jonah Lehrer’s first book, Proust Was a Neuroscientist is an exuberant demonstration that these barriers between science and art can and should be broken down. By taking test cases of artists, authors, musicians, and cooks who anticipated the discoveries of today’s neuroscience, Lehrer makes a strong case for the importance of the arts. And when Lehrer writes about the limitations of science, it is all the more convincing because he also writes knowledgeably about its groundbreaking successes.

Lehrer studied neuroscience at Columbia University, where he worked in the lab of Nobel Prize-winning neuroscientist Eric Kandel. Lehrer was a writer for the Columbia Spectator, a Gospel music DJ for Columbia’s radio station, and Editor-in-Chief of The Columbia Review, the university poetry magazine. He also worked as a line cook at Le Cirque 2000 and Le Bernardin.

Lehrer then studied at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar, where he did much of the research that would become his first book. Today he is Editor at Large for Seed, a magazine about science and culture. He has written for the Boston Globe, Nature, and NPR, and writes a blog about neuroscience called the Frontal Cortex. Join me in welcoming Jonah Lehrer.

Lehrer’s talk was largely based on content from his book. He talked about Escoffier and Stravinsky, and how our love of music is rooted in our ability to recognize patterns. Great artists make good music by setting up a pattern and intentionally withholding it from us. Because we want the pattern again and don’t quite get what we want, our ears and our brain stay fascinated. This, Lehrer argued, is a key similarity between Beethoven and Kanye West. It’s almost like Stravinsky and Kanye West are evolutionarily conserved hox developmental genes in fruit flies and mammals (I’ll let you pick which is which) that have been recently discovered to be homologous. From the outside they look completely different, but what makes them tick is basically the same.

Lehrer’s speech also reminded me of the new John Mayer song I heard for the first time last week. “Say” is pretty simple–it’s the high guitar (or ukulele?) hook at the beginning that first caught my ear. But listen to the chorus too; it’s one six-word phrase repeated over and over:

This simple pattern is very catchy–it sticks in your head. I heard it once on the radio, and then once on the PA system before Bill Clinton spoke (random mix of music I’m sure) and then I had it stuck in my head the whole drive back from New Orleans. I literally flipped through stations hoping to hear the song. I thought about stopping to buy it, but never passed any music stores. At that point I didn’t know who it was or the name of the song, but I was hooked.

So I got home, found out what the song was, and bought in on iTunes. I must say, I’m already kind of tired of it. The Chorus is just too repetitive. While Mayer has some excellent other music, his singles tend to be of lower quality. The difference between a good song and an ok song, or between mere pop music and real music seems to be in these patterns. “Say” is simply too predictable. You know exactly what Mayer will say before he says it, because it’s the same thing over and over again. Really great music flirts with that repetition but never quite gives you satisfaction. And that’s why Brahms takes more effort to listen to, but will likely stand the test of time longer than John Mayer. Or at least his radio singles.

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?

Clinton Global Initiative University

March 20, 2008

Last weekend I went to New Orleans to visit the Tulane School of Public Health (a prospective graduate school for a few years from now when I get tired of working again) and attend the first annual Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) University. This was also my first ever visit to New Orleans (more on that later) and a great chance to get out of small-town Arkansas for a few days.

It also meant I got the pleasure (and mild exhaustion) of making a bit of a cross-country drive. Actually, it was only eight hours or so, but some of the drive was quite beautiful, in a flat sort of way. The weather was also outstanding.


CGI University was the first annual conference for students modeled on the innovative Clinton Global Initiative meetings that have been going on for several years. At CGI, leaders in business, politics, and other fields from around the globe make commitments to action. At the next year’s CGI conference, everyone gets to hear who followed through on their commitments.

CGI University was planned similarly, with students making commitments in the areas of (1) human rights and peace, (2) global health, (3) environmental and climate change, and (4) alleviating poverty. My commitment involved connecting a group of students at my school who are interested in health policy with some local public health professors to do some research that will (hopefully) have an impact on health care in Arkansas.

CGI U featured a lot of interesting people–Bill Clinton, James Carville, Ray Nagin, General Honore, Lauren Bush, and so forth. It was also incredibly well-produced / slick (read: expensive). I hope the conference encourages students to do more good in the world than would have been done by simply giving that money directly to good work. But I imagine it did just that. I also got a chance to pass out ~100 copies of Frank, the magazine I work on at the Clinton School, to a very receptive and interested audience.

Despite the interesting speakers and such, the best part of the weekend was connecting and networking with students from around the country. It’s always reinvigorating to be around a group of talented, dedicated young people who aren’t satisfied with things as they, and who dream of things as they could be. So kudos to the Clinton Foundation for finding a way to bring all of us together.