We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Narrowing visions in the humanities

A recent essay by Heather Macdonald in City Journal is getting lots of attention. Her piece was on the narrowing horizons of those who seek to teach the humanities in our places of higher learning. She ruffled feathers, and wrote this zinger of a response to one of her critics. Here is an excerpt:

…in contrast to the narcissism of today’s identity studies, the humanist tradition was founded “on the all-consuming desire to engage with the genius and radical difference of the past.” The Renaissance humanists were attracted to Classical Rome precisely because it differed so much from their contemporary Rome, with its papal intrigues and corrupted Latin; they were acutely aware of historical change and developed the seminal methods of textual scholarship to overcome the effects of time on historical and literary sources. It is instead the contemporary identity theorist who lacks an appreciation for the specificity of the past, determined as he is to expound on his own or others’ victimhood rather than lose himself in a world that may not mirror his narrow obsessions.

And that surely is the point. Western civilisation was reinvigorated when the lessons and musings of the Ancients were rediscovered. So much so that the “Grand Tour” was considered part of an educated person’s life, albeit only one that the rich could then afford. True progressives should want, and have wanted, this sort of grand tour of the intellect to be made available to all. No educated person would pass through life ignorant of Cicero; Aristotle, Marcus Aurelius or Lucretius. Instead, however, some of today’s educators would happily Balkanize us all inside narrow, self-regarding “victim groups”. (This is not just a fault of the academic Left, by the way – there are variants of this on the hard right, as far as I can see, when such folk fret about the impact of “alien cultures”).

Tim Sandefur also has comments on this topic:

This is true in other arts, too. There’s good poetry, sculpture, painting, and music out there, but the artistic elite—indoctrinated in postmodernism and identity politics—largely ignore those who produce it, on the grounds that it appeals to the common man and is therefore “commercial” (i.e., capitalist; i.e., evil) or “irrelevant” because it does not express the identity-politics agenda that is acceptable within that elite. This might at first seem paradoxical, since the political roots of this movement are in Marxism, which claimed to reject class divisions and to create a universal-humanity state. But just as Marxist societies become rigidly hierarchical—with a privileged nomenklatura on top and the faceless mass of disposable proles below—so in the art world, there is an elite of aesthetic correctness…and the consumers and consumer-friendly artists who are ignored when they are not ridiculed. Marxism was and remains a disease of the elite. Based on contempt for bourgeois society and bourgeois virtues, it has never recognized that these virtues are actually the desires of all mankind. Beauty is the most fragile of bourgeois virtues. It is always thought the most disposable by leaders with more militant goals.

I corrected the name of the publication to City Journal. My goof.

Samizdata quote of the day

“A decade or more ago, I used to have conversations with journalists who reflected that their industry’s business model was collapsing, but who somewhat sheepishly hoped the collapse wouldn’t come until they reached retirement age. Now I have the same kind of conversation with academics.”

Glenn Reynolds, Mr Instapundit himself.

Schoolboy howlers

We all love those daft things that school children put on exam papers – How long is the menstrual cycle? Three feet; that sort of thing. So, here are some from a hundred years ago (when they didn’t have such things as menstrual cycles):

After twice committing suicide, Cowper lived till 1800 when he died a natural death.

Much butter is imported from Denmark, because Danish cows have greater enterprise and superior technical education to ours.

In the British Empire the sun always sets.

The courage of the Turks is explained by the fact that a man with more than one wife is more willing to face death than if he had only one.

Under what conditions will a body float in water? After it has been in the water three days.

Some of the others might turn out to be even funnier if I understood them.

‘Refusal will result in a Racial Discrimination note being attached to your child’s education record, which will remain on this file throughout their school career’

I have only one thing to add to this Telegraph blog post by Daniel Hannan.

It is this: I am glad that Mr Hannan and other newspapers have not followed the usual timid practice when reporting stories of this type and obscured the name of the culprit. A storm of public anger is about the only weapon we have against the likes of Mrs L Small, head teacher of Littleton Green Community School, Colliers Way, Huntingdon, South Staffordshire WS12 4UD.

And if “our R.E. coordinator Mrs Edmonds”, she being the one with whom parents are invited to “discuss this further”, does not wish to join her boss in the stocks, she should direct her further discussion towards disassociating herself from the literally fascist tactics Mrs Small uses.

The L stands for “Lynn”, by the way. Lynn Small, head teacher of Littleton Green Community School, the one who coerces parents by threatening to harm their eight year old children.

Graduates and the UK jobs market

“Almost half of the UK’s recent graduates are working in non-graduate jobs, demonstrating that pain continues to be felt in the labour market despite the start of economic recovery.”

The Financial Times, today (behind a paywall). I’d add that this also suggests that some of the degrees that people have acquired – at some cost – are not marketable, and unlikely ever to be so. The whole idea that at least 50 per cent of the school-leaving population should go straight into higher education needs to be re-thought.

By coincidence, over at the Econlog blog, Bryan Caplan has this to say about the issue of “malemployment”. That is a term that deserves to be used more widely.

Teaching Austrian Economics to China

Which is better? A technically superb photo of something you’ve seen many times before, like a wonderful still life oil painting? Or, a technically very average photo of something remarkable, that you never thought you’d live to see?

If you are in the mood for the second sort of photo, and you are someone who likes the kind of ideas that Samizdata seeks to spread, you should definitely take a look at this:

Evans+ChineseAustrianism

This is a group of Chinese people to whom Tim Evans of the Cobden Centre, seated proudly in their midst, was speaking, on Friday September 20th, about … Austrian Economics. And yes that is people from China China, not from some already strongly capitalistic outlying fragment of China.

My thanks to Simon Gibbs of Libertarian Home for telling me about this. Gibbs writes:

Tim Evans of the Austrianist Cobden Centre shared this image on Facebook. It is unclear who is visiting who but he is depicted front and centre with a delegation of Chinese officials as if he was an honoured guest or leader. Tim has been training the group in the details of Austrianism. The group worked with the Chinese State Council and the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party.

Of this exercise, Tim Evans writes:

Spent a great day on Friday lecturing key academic and economic advisers to the Chinese State Council and the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party. I regularly work with senior Chinese officials and find many of them to be increasingly well versed in the ideas of the Austrian School of Economics.

Austrian Economics is very persuasive to a certain sort of economically curious person, because it is basically a statement of how things are. It describes a world of realities which are true whether you care about or accept their truth or not. This stuff is true no matter what else you choose merely to believe. You can, in principle, understand that Austrian Economics describes how the world is, yet still believe that the world ought to be a centralised despotism or a socialist nirvana, or maybe even some combination of the two.

But, it is rather difficult to stick with such beliefs on a permanent basis. Once you accept the truths that Austrian Economics tells you, it is difficult not to find yourself believing that the world ought to be different from the tyrannical way that a lot of it still is.

Samizdata quote of the day

We need these government training schemes to produce skilled workers, they have not learnt any meaningful skills in, er, government schools

– Samizdata commenter Mr. Ed

Get used to it: two more minor acts of oppression in developed countries

No one was killed, no one was injured. Do not excite yourselves.

From Adrian Hilton in the Spectator: Revd Dr Alan Clifford’s ‘homophobic’ comments referred to the CPS

The Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 contains the offence of stirring up hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation. Anyone using threatening words or behaviour, or anyone displaying, publishing or distributing any written material which is threatening, is liable for prosecution. Former Conservative Home Secretary Lord Waddington won an amendment to an earlier version of the law, which established that no one might be prosecuted for stating their belief that homosexuality is sinful or wrong. It read: ‘For the avoidance of doubt, the discussion or criticism of sexual conduct or practices or the urging of persons to refrain from or modify such conduct or practices shall not be taken of itself to be threatening or intended to stir up hatred.’

But that protection will be illusory for as long as homophobia is defined and understood by the police as ‘any incident which is perceived to be homophobic by the victim or any other person’. Against that background, all mission-orientated Christians will need to temper their proselytism – especially on Gay Pride marches.

Dr Clifford tells me that Huguenot Calvinists are not easily intimidated, and that his faith in God is sustaining him: ‘I am not in deep shock: I enjoy perfect peace,’ he said. Others, of course, may not be so robust and may indeed prefer to pay a £90 fine. Much may depend on the tone and manner of the interrogating police officer.

From Damien Gayle in the Daily Mail via Tim Worstall: Armed police turn up at family home with a battering ram to seize their children after they defy Germany’s ban on home schooling

A team of 20 social workers, police officers, and special agents stormed the home of Dirk and Petra Wunderlich because they refused to send their children to state schools. The youngsters were taken to unknown locations after officials allegedly ominously promised the parents that they would not be seeing them again ‘any time soon’.

The only legal grounds for the removal of the children, aged from seven to 14, were the family’s insistence on home schooling their children, with no other allegations of abuse or neglect.

Samizdata quote of the day

“How did it come to pass that so many teachers and students, in some of the freest and most scientifically accomplished nations in the world, entertained such an illiberal, illogical, and politically repressive account of the relationship between science and society? Part of the answer may be that universities generally, and humanities departments in particular, are more backward than is universally recognised. For most of their history, universities functioned primarily as repositories of tradition. It was professors, not priests, who refused to look through Galileo’s telescope, and who drove genuinely progressive students like Francis Bacon and John Locke to distraction with their endless logic-chopping and parsing of ancient texts. Similarly it was twentieth-century humanities professors who, confronted with the glories of modern science and the triumph of the liberal democracies over totalitarianism, responded by denigrating virtually every political philosophy except totalitarianism.”

– The Science of Liberty, by Timothy Ferris, pages 257-8.

This is the Timothy Ferris who writes mostly about science, not the Timothy Ferris of the “Four-hour body” and other such works.

How developed economies make schools worse and encourage home education

Instpundit gleefully links to an article entitled (my reaction to this sentence was to see if SQotD was already taken – it was):

America’s best educated kids don’t go to school

Why? Well, partly of course it’s all the usual public sector stuff, about a big old nationalised industry getting worse and worse, no matter how much other people’s money they throw at it. Unions won’t allow bad teachers to be fired. Politicians won’t allow bad kids to be disciplined. And so on. Public sector education in the USA is a like a great big Detroit, spreading out across the entire country. All true.

But I think there’s another big force at work here. Another key sentence in this piece, aside from its title, is a quote from Walter Russell Mead:

Many parents these days have just as much education as teachers if not more.

A few years back, I did a spell of education blogging, and one of the big conclusions I reached was that countries where teaching was a much coveted career were at a fundamentally different stage in their development to ones where teaching was what you did when you couldn’t get a better job. Basically, in develop-ing countries, teaching was and is a great job. Everyone knows education will separate you from the pack of the dirt poor, but the jobs you’ll then get offered will still be pretty terrible, so a very appealing job is to be a teacher. But in a develop-ed country, where the economy has worked out how to make seriously good use of educated people, teaching is strictly a second best, if that. The result is this odd flip-flop. The more developed the country, the crappier its schools tended to be, at least compared to what you might have expected. Lavishly funded, crammed with textbooks and computers, but still a horrible disappointment.

To put all this another way, what I am saying is that the familiar slogan saying that Those Who Can Do and Those Who Can’t Teach applies with unequal force, depending on what else there is to do.

I recall reading, long ago, in a book by the late Peter Drucker (he was one of the first people I ever read who told it like it was about the public sector), about how computers had, for the first time in human history, created an abundance of well paid jobs for mathematicians. Given that the world now cries out for maths geeks, to do things like programme computers, analyse share prices, stop bridges collapsing, streamline cars, predict market share, sort out logistics in warehouses, and so on and so on and so on, it’s no wonder that maths teachers are on the whole not what they used to be. The same principle applies to education generally.

A hundred years ago, the typical American kid’s best chance of learning good stuff about the world was to go to a school and pay attention to the teachers there, who tended to be far better educated than his own parents. Now, increasingly, the same kid would do better to skip school and spend time with his now far better educated parents. (The big question now being: can those parents spare the time? Suggestion: a developed economy that is in an economic slump is especially good at encouraging home education.)

As commenters will surely explain, there are plenty of other influences that explain the current inexorable rise of home education, the fact that computers are now to be found in every home – now, in just about every hand – being another obvious fact about this story. But I do believe that the tendency, now as opposed to a century ago, of well educated people in rich countries only to want to be teachers if they are too mediocre to do any better is a big part of this story.

Gifted, cursed, whatever

In response to a rather gushing article by Sally Gardner, a dyslexic novelist, entitled “Dyslexia is not a disability – it’s a gift”, one Alftser responded that if he or she had been given that gift “I’d find the receipt and get a refund.”

I laughed at that. However stripped of all the self-dramatisation (a pardonable sin in a novelist) and the wishful bagging of Einstein, Steve Jobs, and any public figure who ever misspelled a word as fellow dyslexics, Ms Gardner’s story is quite impressive: she is a winner of the Carnegie Medal who did not learn to read until she was 14. In a sense one cannot quarrel with her assessment that her own dyslexia has been a gift – and not just because she has been successful but because one cannot quarrel with anyone’s experience of their own lives. Well, one can quarrel with it. I’ve known people who could quarrel with the speaking clock. But you know what I mean.

Sadly, for most dyslexic people dyslexia is a pain in the part of the anatomy that I will exercise sufficient self control to not make a joke of misspelling, because dyslexics have heard all the jokes before. Most children with dyslexia are not going to have their inner genius unleashed even when presented with positive role models because they do not have an inner genius. Humanity is like that: mostly supplied with the inner genius slot vacant. Dyslexia may indeed, as Ms Gardner suggests, promote the skill of navigating the world by other means than arranging the written word, but in most cases this skill is simply not as useful as the one it substitutes for. That’s tough, but not insurmountable. Surmount it.

For a minority of dyslexics and quite a few pretenders, the diagnosis is a means to get free laptops, extra time and marks in exams, and a ready made victim identity.

Free stuff takes a very strong spirit to refuse. The extra marks are OK, so long as you do not end up deceiving others or yourself. But DO NOT TAKE THE VICTIM IDENTITY. It is poison.

ADDED LATER: G K Chesterton once said, “The dipsomaniac and the abstainer are not only both mistaken, but they both make the same mistake. They both regard wine as a drug and not as a drink.” I think that those who, like Sally Gardner, regard themselves (without irony) as being special because of their dyslexia (“Dyslexia is not a disability – it’s a gift. It means that I, and many other dyslexic thinkers can portray the world through images because we think in images. I can build worlds, freeze the frame, walk around and touch. I can read people’s faces, drawings, buildings, landscapes and all things in the visual world more quickly than many of my non-dyslexic friends. I paint with words; they are my colours.”) and those who embrace victimhood are making the same mistake. They both regard dyslexia as an identity and not as a condition.

We want to rule you because you are stupid and powerless and we are wise

Even by the standards of the authortarian depravity of people who work in the West’s places of higher education, this caught my eye:

“Against Autonomy is a defence of paternalistic laws; that is, laws that make you do things, or prevent you from doing things, for your own good. I argue that autonomy, or the freedom to act in accordance with your own decisions, is overrated — that the common high evaluation of the importance of autonomy is based on a belief that we are much more rational than we actually are. We now have lots of evidence from psychology and behavioural economics that we are often very bad at choosing effective means to our ends. In such cases, we need the help of others — and in particular, of government regulation — to keep us from going wrong.”

Via the website of Stephen Hicks.

Read the whole thing. And look at the sort of coercive measures she favours, such as over the number of children that people have. Here is the book.

The other day, we had a debate on this site about free will and determinism. It is a debate that goes back centuries. For what it is worth, I am on the side of those who believe that human beings, by their very nature, have volition – it is hard to see how humans can form concepts, judge and reason without a volitional capacity. Here is a great discussion of the issues over at Diana Hsieh’s Philosophy in Action blog.

Now, some people argue, this is all very academic. But as the example above shows, once supposedly “academic” and “scientific” people put about the idea that we are nothing more than puppets in a deterministic universe, certain consequences follow. It can – although it needn’t – lead to fatalism and nihilism. It can also mean that certain intellectuals and the like, rather as the Marxists of old, consider themselves able to rise above the herd, diagnose the ills of we meat-puppets, and lead us “for our own good”. Just as a Marxist would shout “bourgeois illusion!” if a person ever contested such ideas as historical inevitability, so today’s modern determinists, such the Sam Harrises, do the same in suggesting that our free will/volition is also an illusion.

And Harris’ recent forays into the world of political philosophy give us a good idea of how collectivist such people frequently are. Here, by the way, is an excellent short book by Tim Mawson, a philosopher, on the free will issue – it has a huge bibliography at the back which is also very useful.

Some things change and some things stay the same. And it seems that one constant debate is that between those who think that Man is, to an extent anyway, the master or author of his own story, and those who would rather Man just did what he was told, for his own good, of course. Well, I know which side I’m on.

Update, via the Art and Letters Daily website, I came across this rather soft-ball review of the book by a certain Cass Sunstein, one of those unashamed paternalists whom, it pains me to say, seem to be popular with the current political class. (But even he has reservations about this book.)