In the House of Advanced Primates

In French you can say, without blushing, “les sciences de l’homme”; in German you can say “Geisteswissenschaften”; but if you say “the human sciences” or “the sciences of the spirit” in American English, you have the feeling of perpetrating a mistranslation, a misconception, or even a fraud. Why is that? Well, one reason jumps off the page of Jamie Cohen-Cole’s The Open Mind: Cold War Politics and the Sciences of Human Nature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014):

As it was originally organized, the National Science Foundation did not include a specific mandate to support the social sciences. This was because the public, Congress and many natural scientists either equated the social sciences with socialism or did not find them to be sciences at all. … Speaking for the “average American,” Congressman Clarence Brown (R-Oh.) [said]: “If the impression becomes prevalent in Congress that this legislation [for the National Science Foundation] is to establish some sort of organization in which there would be a lot of short-haired women and long-haired men messing into everybody’s personal affairs and lives, inquiring whether they love their wives or do not love them and so forth, you are not going to get this legislation.” (p. 96)

So that’s why anthropologists and others of that tribe have mostly depended on private foundation money in this country. And at the beginning, at least, the bargain didn’t seem Faustian at all. Private money was interested in generating innovative, consequential research, with a lingering aftertaste of the great interdisciplinary efforts that had won the last war for democracy. When there was bounty, the ideas bubbled quickly to the surface. Already in 1955, the Wenner-Gren Foundation was underwriting the founding conference of environmental studies, “Man’s Role in Changing the Face of the Earth.” Also a taboo topic today.

Though Cohen-Cole’s book is a bit repetitive and overuses the passive voice, it tells an important story from which I pull this corollary: The humanities and social sciences aren’t “irrelevant.” It’s the definition of “relevance” that shrank, as the community of interest and support behind academia changed its objectives from building worldwide support for “the American way of life” (pluralistic, democratic, plentiful, permissive) to guaranteeing the highest return on investment. “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small” (Sunset Boulevard).


Cooper Union Lives or Dies Today


Cooper Union – as a unique institution of higher education; as a legacy of  visionary founder Peter Cooper; as a dream – lives or dies today. Just so you know.

Free is Not for Nothing – The Vote to Save Cooper Union by alumni trustee Kevin Slavin:

If the vote goes one way, a new, lean, careful Cooper Union will tiptoe forward, tuition-free. It will require equal parts deep sacrifice, wild ambition, and straightforward pragmatism. And it will uphold a 150+ year tradition of free undergraduate education.

If it goes the other way, all of that will disappear. Not just the free tuition, but everything that was built on it. In its place we’ll find a tragic fraud. A joke. A zombie.

Here’s some background from Felix Salmon, who has been drawing attention to the foresight of Cooper’s vision and the perfidy of recent Presidents and Boards.

The Cooper Union story recapitulates, in miniature, a shockingly large proportion of the various aspects of the  global war on public-serving higher education. Here’s to hoping the tide is turning, today.


Kleos Aphthiton

From the New Yorker‘s reportage on the MOOCs that people (well, the stockholders of Coursera and the like, anyway) claim will make the brick-and-mortar university obsolete:

“I could easily see a great institution like Harvard having a dynamic archive where, even after I’m gone—not just retired but let’s say really gone, I mean dead—aspects of the course could interlock with later generations of teachers and researchers,” Nagy told me. “Achilles himself says it in [Iliad,] Rhapsody 9, Line 413: ‘I’m going to die, but this story will be like a beautiful flower that will never wilt.’ ”

The speaker is Gregory Nagy, a scholar I’ve been reading for at least thirty-five years and who’s been personally encouraging to me; and I can’t help feeling there’s something sad about the quotation. Greg Nagy has been covered with every honor the world of American learning can dream up. He was tenured and promoted to full professor at Harvard at a young age, he has been the director of the Center for Hellenic Studies, been lauded, fêted, cited, and nonetheless has time to go out for coffee with random visitors and talk about ideas for books that may never be written. Among his many students are some of the most lively minds in Classics; they have generally done pretty well on the perilous career path of that always menaced field. He doesn’t believe that there is such a thing as a dead language. For what it’s worth, I like him immensely. And yet when he thinks about the shortness of life, about the recompense that Achilles received for his early death in battle– undying fame through Homer’s songs– he envisions his own berth in the Elysian Fields as a set of computer videos, chunked into twelve-minute segments, each followed by a quiz: his MOOC on the Greek hero.

Continue reading


The Problem With Recognition

Hegel, as you know, started his account of social life with the struggle between master and slave. The master’s dependency on the slave meant that ultimately the slave was stronger. Alexandre Kojève (born Kojevnikoff) read this struggle as a combat for recognition, in which only humans could engage. Need a definition of “the human”? Recognition makes us human. At the ends of the spectrum of which ordinary human consciousness occupied the central band, you had pre-human animality (mere struggle for resources) and post-human dandyism (purely aesthetic competition, with no material stakes).

This always seemed to me a heretical revision of the Marxist-materialist account of society. But an immensely successful one. Napoleon used to marvel at how he could make men brave death for the sake of little plaques of metal tied to bright ribbons. By choosing to translate economics, sociology, psychology, philosophy into the common currency of recognition, Kojève launched a lot of ships, including a certain Lacanian armada and multiculturalism in its Charles-Taylorish version.

But there’s a problem with recognition: it works all too well.  Continue reading


Air pollution in China: alpha/omega?

Useful and interesting discussion at China File on “airpocalypse now.”

Quote from Alex Wang to set up the discussion:

My own view is that China’s tipping point, in a sense, already arrived a few years ago. But the official response has been wholly inadequate to the task. Fundamental weaknesses in the way that China has approached its environmental protection efforts mean that the environmental crisis has continued to run amok.

Put all this in the “why I’m down on China” file, whose contents explain why my family will not be spending my 2013-14 sabbatical there.


Multigenerational social mobility

…is apparently less fluid than we tend to think. A really useful piece from the Economist updates us with the latest research from a variety of social scientists, and also–incredibly usefully–includes links to all the research it cites.

Money quote:

A second method relies on the chance overrepresentation of rare surnames in high- or low-status groups at some point in the past. If very few Britons are called Micklethwait, for example, and people with that name were disproportionately wealthy in 1800, then you can gauge long-run mobility by studying how long it takes the Micklethwait name to lose its wealth-predicting power. In a paper written by Mr Clark and Neil Cummins of Queens College, City University of New York, the authors use data from probate records of 19th-century estates to classify rare surnames into different wealth categories. They then use similar data to see how common each surname is in these categories in subsequent years. Again, some 70-80% of economic advantage seems to be transmitted from generation to generation.

It should by the way be mandatory for articles in newspapers and magazines published online to include links to the scientific papers to which they refer.


Trading Babies Are Not Enough…

…to bring us to Milton Friedman’s promised land.

(Before I get started: I find the baby ads (from E-Trade) obnoxious, partly because they suggest (not despite but because of the humor) a kind of distant limit for the absolute financialization of everyday life, from birth to death, the final dream of which is the end of the welfare state and the incorporation of human beings (thereby neatly reversing Mitt Romney’s canard).)

The title of this post derives from new research by Roger Farmer, who shows (or purports to–I’m not qualified to judge) that efficient market hypotheses fail because no market system can include investment choices made by the as-yet-unborn:

Steve Davis and Till von Wachter (2011) have shown that the present value of lifetime income of new entrants to the labour market can differ substantially depending on whether their first job occurs in a boom or a recession. In our model, the lifetime income of the young can differ by as much as 20% across booms and slumps.

Given the choice, the young agents in our model would prefer to avoid the risk of a 20% variation in lifetime wealth. There is a feasible way of allocating resources that would insure them against this risk, but financial markets cannot achieve this allocation, except by chance. The inability of our children to trade in prenatal financial markets is sufficient to invalidate the first welfare theorem of economics.

As Farmer goes on to say, the research has “Keynsian policy implications” (I had figured it might).


Clay Shirky on Higher Education and the MOOCs

Clay Shirky has a long and deeply thought-out post on Massive Open Online Classes (MOOCs) and the future of higher education over at his blog. As this is one of my issue-obsessions right now, it was a personal must-read and I thought I would drop a pointer to it here. His chief point is that the MOOCs, within the context of higher education, serve as the best analogue to the music industry’s MP3s, the newspapers’ Craigslist / Google, or the movie industry’s BitTorrent – the internet’s disruptive agent of choice for this particular industry.

The people in the music industry weren’t stupid, of course. They had access to the same internet the rest of us did. They just couldn’t imagine—and I mean this in the most ordinarily descriptive way possible—could not imagine that the old way of doing things might fail.

I agree with this fundamental point and, more than that, with most of his associated arguments and corollaries. In particular, I appreciated that he does not fall prey to the “same approach to teaching today as 1000 years ago in medieval Europe” trope, and takes the time to address the components of traditional higher education that are not likely to be obsoleted by the internet. All the same, he argues that – just as with MP3s, Craigslist, Wikipedia, and BitTorrent – the new internet substitute for higher education does not have to offer better quality to be highly disruptive. Indeed!

In Shirky’s vision, the chief near-term feature of the higher education landscape will be the breathtakingly rapid expansion and improvement of MOOC offerings from Udacity, Stanford, Harvard/MIT, and others, which will suck the oxygen out of the business model at the “low end” of the market first and proceed up-market from there. As an interesting aside (which I also appreciated), he points out that the true bottom-feeders of higher education are not the lowest-priced institutions but quite the reverse: they are the for-profit conglomerates, which offer much higher cost (debt) per value delivered than any public institution. Moreover, he points out, we are not talking about a product that threatens the business model of the Ivy League or, really, the top 100 schools in a fundamental way. (However, he does see deep trouble ahead for median institutions; as he puts it, “Bridgerland Applied Technology College? Maybe not fine. University of Arkansas at Little Rock? Maybe not fine.”)

At Penn State we are active participants in our own disintermediation these days, with a “World Campus” that happily offers online course credits for money – and good money at that. It has been hard to witness the expansion in these offerings, and the increasing contribution they make to the annual budgets of many Departments (including mine), without mixed feelings. On the one hand, this is a tremendous business success for the institution. On the other hand, we seem to be in the process of online-educating ourselves out of a job. And yet on the third hand – the point of Shirky’s piece, really – what choice do we have? We can either suffer disruption by others or disrupt ourselves.

In the academy, we lecture other people every day about learning from history. Now its our turn, and the risk is that we’ll be the last to know that the world has changed, because we can’t imagine—really cannot imagine—that story we tell ourselves about ourselves could start to fail. Even when it’s true. Especially when it’s true.

Finally, in a last twist of the rhetorical knife, I imagine I’ll be thinking a lot about these issues come January, when I begin teaching our Department’s World Campus version of “Life in the Universe” for the first time. We’ll see how it goes.



The Late Bookstore

A couple of people have let me know that my piece on the demise of the former UCI Bookstore has readers in the outside world, something I never would have guessed from the comments section here. Their reaction has been, “This is terrible! I never knew about this! How do we get our UCI Bookstore back? Do we protest, boycott, Occupy? You tell us to ‘despair.’ That can’t be right.”

The short answer is that it’s simply too late. There was a period of so-called “public comment” about a year ago which had a small number of takers. I think that the people who commented were, like me, ignored and put off, but that would have been the right time to raise a hue and cry.

At this point, the store has sold off practically all of its extant book inventory — tens of thousands of books. (I think there may still be a few hundred book SKUs (items) in the system that aren’t textbooks.) Some titles were sold to customers at reduced prices, some more recent titles were returned to the publisher at their original cost, and everything else went to a jobber who paid pennies on the dollar. The store has doubtless taken a big loss on those books, but consigning them has meant the store can free up shelf space for more profitable inventory, like plush anteaters.

Suppose, for the sake of argument, that a Save The Bookstore movement coalesced, and had at the top of its list of demands: “Bring back our books!” From a business perspective, this cannot be done. You cannot liquidate inventory at pennies on the dollar and then bring back the exact same inventory in at the regular wholesale price of 25-40% off list. If I were the Associate Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs, I would fire the Bookstore director who did such a thing. The only way out would be if a director could make a compelling case that the store could sell, say, at least three copies of each book every year. That is far in excess of the sales rate of the average trade book at the former Bookstore, which was .75 to 1 copy per year.

If the director were to commit to selling three copies of every title every year, the customers of the store would have to make a commitment to buy them. I could see a sort of Kickstarter-style campaign, where people would agree to reserve $25, $50, or $75 book gift certificates, good for one year and not redeemable for cash, in their names. If the inventory were funded up to or over a certain level, say, $75,000, the donors would be charged, the certificates issued, and the inventory purchased. Without such a setup… we know what that looks like already, where well-intentioned people loved the Bookstore so much, they bought all their books online. When I think about the Bookstore in this respect, I think of Abie Glassman, the Jewish peddler from John D. Fitzgerald’s Great Brain children’s books. Glassman came to stay and sell notions in Fitzgerald’s fictional Mormon community. He cared about his customers, and he was beloved. Nonetheless, he starved to death because nearly everyone went to the official Mormon ZCMI store; it was simply more expedient for them to do so.

The idea of a crowdsourcing campaign gets to the bottom of “how to get our store back.” The argument for the destruction of the Bookstore was economic; any counter-argument, at least in the current reality, will have to be economic as well. A university bookstore is a business. It brings money into the University. When that money dwindles, it means that there is less to support University programs, and, especially when State money keeps getting scarcer, administrators have to fill the gap, period. Anyone who wants to bring the UCI Bookstore back will have to come up with a realistic business plan of his or her own, one that fills that gap over the long term, or comes very close.

I said, “at least in the current reality.” In the world of principles, which is where many readers reside, things are — or, should be — different. Access to books, and the promotion of higher forms of literacy, should be parts of a university’s mission. Libraries, by their nature, go only so far with this mission; every book acquired must be argued for, and every book acquired must help develop a collection. A real university bookstore is not under these constraints; people are exposed to the streams of fiction and non-fiction in real time, and they can get what they want without contending with someone else’s loan period. What is that worth? Could a university bookstore be operated, not as a profit center, but as the part of the educational enterprise that encouraged reading? Those who play the zero-sum game would ask, “Which would you rather have: a real university bookstore or more students getting financial aid?” I invite you to think your way out of that question.


This is, perhaps, too harsh a place to end, so I will return to an earlier time. When I was a graduate student and entry-level worker at the Bookstore, there was a frequent customer from the English department named Professor Homer Obed Brown. He was known at the store both for his benevolence and amiability, and for his besottedness with books. When, in my capacity as a graduate student, I would go into his office, every horizontal surface would be piled four or five feet high with books, the library’s mingled with his own. When, in my capacity as a Bookstore worker, I would walk with him through the store, we would talk, and he would absentmindedly slip books into his basket, until at last he would present himself at the register with some twenty-odd books at a time. I would like to think that, if he were alive today and had known of the Bookstore’s problems, he would have solved them by buying up the literary criticism section outright.