Monday, August 29, 2011

Thoughts on "Politics" by W. B. Yeats


'In our time the destiny of man presents its meaning in political terms.' -- Thomas Mann

How can I, that girl standing there,
My attention fix
On Roman or on Russian
Or on Spanish politics?
Yet here's a travelled man that knows
What he talks about,
And there's a politician
That has read and thought,
And maybe what they say is true
Of war and war's alarms,
But O that I were young again
And held her in my arms!

This poem was of course written during the rise of Communism and its identical cousin Fascism -- we see references to Italian Fascism/Mussolini, Soviet Communism/Stalin, and Spanish Fascism/Franco. It seems odd that he fails to mention the most obvious hyperpolitical country, Nazi Germany -- except that Germany is in fact mentioned in the Mann quote. (A terrible thing for Mann to thus represent Nazi Germany, especially considering Mann's own work from that period, Dr. Faustus -- but the quote is exactly right for the poem, and is a proper sign of the times.) That was a time when politics dominated the world, more so than anything else. Fascism and Communism were supposedly about economics, but were in fact all about politics -- they were economics politicized and, in Germany, race politicized.

And here we are now, with so much of America politicized. Race, gender, economics -- all are politicized. Is that not a danger? Is not Yeats pointing out this danger? And what is politics in this sense? What is it compared to what is really important (what Yeats points out, the love of someone else -- love! the opposite of politics!).

Yet, man is a political animal, is he not? Well, there is politics in the sense of the social games we necessarily play in order to live together, and there is politics in the sense of power held over others. The two are different things, even as they are not unrelated. But when the latter sense overwhelms, takes over a society, we end up with the kinds of dangerous, ugly regimes as we saw in the first half of the 20th century. Why, then, do we turn toward such hyperpoliticization ourselves? Is it, as it was with Fascism in Europe, the nihilistic result of the collapse of the welfare state?

Do not mistake me: I am not claiming we are Nazifying America or some such. There are indications that we are fighting exactly those fascist tendencies that seem to naturally arise in such situations as we find ourselves in. But in waging that fight, many are becoming politicized as well who never were before. As such, they threaten those who want to keep power, who are promising that the government will save them, if only we give more and more police and economic power over to the government. And thus we all become ever-more politicized. As such, those of us who just want to be left alone are dragged into the fray, made what we hate in our politicization. Politicization fractionalizes, we are made into Us and Them -- we are tribalized, and morality thus degrades. That is the end result of this kind of politicization. This is the great evil of such politics.

The world (or is it just the U.S.? -- which seems to be the world when you are a citizen of the U.S., considering the news coverage) is increasingly imbalanced in the way it was during the Great Depression. Where are we headed? Do we have the wherewithal to resist it again?

The world needs more than just politics. When we overbalance toward politics, we fall into evil, as that is the necessary outcome of pure power-seeking that constitutes the political. We need aesthetics/beauty. We need economics/wealth. We need science/truth. We need philanthropy/gift-giving. We need education/knowledge. We need religion/philosophy/wisdom. We need them all in equal measure, balancing each other out. Only thus can politics find its proper place, proper balance, and become a realm of justice rather than power (which uses the rhetoric of justice for unjust means).

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Potential Openings for Literary Theorists

I am currently reading The Art of Immersion by Frank Rose, and I cannot recommend it highly enough for those into stories, games, and the internet. It has inspired me to write Googling Facebook, a blog novel.

However, what caught my attention most recently was the observation that

In too many cases--Star Wars being an obvious exception--the producers of a movie or a television show or a video game haven't plumbed their story deeply enough even to identify its message, much less whatever underlying myth it may embody. "So the message changes and the audience becomes frustrated," he [Jeff Gomez of Starlight Runner Entertainment] went on. "It's out job to figure that out. And to do that you have to crack the IP"--the intellectual property, the core of the story. "That means immersing ourselves in it and figuring out what makes it timeless and relevant. There's an aha! moment that's very specific to each property. It's the moment when I've found the true emotional connection."

Actually, this sounds like the job of the literary critic -- it ought to be the job of a literary critic. In theory, isn't that what literary theorists are supposed to be able to do? Someone who is well versed in traditional stories, particularly epics, ancient plays, and mythology -- that is, someone in tune with the species' deep knowledge and emotional connections -- would be able to do precisely the job descried above. I wonder if that has occurred to anyone. If it hasn't, places like Starlight Runner Entertainment are missing out on where the talent for what Gomez described really lies -- and literary theorists are missing out on a lucrative new opening in their field. Many, I am sure, would think it below them to work in such an industry, but many won't. I'm sure not one of them. What could be better than to have a great job doing what you love? Who cares if it's not in a university?

Monday, August 22, 2011

Credit in Education

I have been thinking about higher education as a spontaneous order for an upcoming colloquium on that topic. One of the things I have been thinking about is the nature of the "currency" in the educational order. In science we have reputation, in democracy we have votes, and in economics we have, of course, money. What is it in education that would be equivalent? The knee-jerk reaction would of course be that it is "grades." But this isn't true. Schools aren't graded, and grades do not transfer directly. No, the currency of education is "credit." You can sign up for a 1 or 3 or even 5 credit course, and the grades are distributed by credit. It is more important to have an A in your 5 credit cell biology and lab course than your 1 credit intro. to chemistry lab. Further, colleges are "accredited." They, too, receive credit -- though theirs is typically from a central accrediting authority in the state the college is in.

Of course, the analogy of credits to other forms of currency, particularly money, is not perfect. In colleges, the credit transfer is one way -- from teacher to student. The same is true of accreditation -- from the accreditation board to the college. These credits are not transferable from person to person, but only from college to college -- thus they are really institutional. When you graduate, nobody cares about the number of credits you have, only that you have a degree and what major and minor you had. Of course, it is the credits which "purchase" the degree -- and the major and the minor.

Once we understand the nature of the currency of education as credit, we can begin to suggest ways of reforming higher education that would benefit students the most. I have discussed Arnold Kling's solution to credit and accreditation here. One of the benefits of outsourcing -- really, creating a new institution -- credits is that students would no longer seek out the "easy" professor, but would begin to seek out the best teacher. The best teachers would of course be those who can best communicate complicated or complex ideas in a way that students can best understand it. If professors were paid according to the number of students who showed up under this new way of getting credits, there would be an incentive to be a good teacher.

Now, there are those who would no doubt object that such a way of paying professors would encourage lots of English Composition classes, which everyone needs, and discourage those such as senior-level classes on epic literature in the 20th century. The solution is simple enough: to pay more per student for higher level courses than for lower level ones. There would still be a difference in pay, but in essence the professor would end up having to pay a little to offer a course he loves without being outright punished for it. Thus, we encourage professors to pick up the lower-level classes, but do not punish them for offering more advanced classes. And the students would be able to vote for who is the best professor with their dollars, while the new way of giving credits would discourage teachers from being too easy.

Of course, I don't think the outside creditor should be the only source. There should still be homework, etc. in classes. And that should count. The solution to that is for the grades to count if the student passes the creditor final test or essay. Thus, the credit is transformed into a grade. I would then further suggest that the grades be turned into credit themselves. For example, one could have a system where for a 3 credit course, an A gets you 3, a B gets you 2, a C gets you 1, a D gets you 0.5, and of course an F gets you 0 credits. This would alter the number of credits one gets, and make students have to take more classes in a field they have not done well in, thus increasing their knowledge (which is, after all, supposed to be the goal of education). So if you are supposed to have 9 hrs in a social studies area, and you got an A in all three 3 hr classes, you are good to go. But if you got a B in your classes, you would have to take 5 classes to reach the maximum hours. And if you got a C in your classes, you would have to take 9 classes. (Keeping in mind that mixed grades are more likely.) This, too, would encourage students to study harder to get higher grades. Again, this is in combination with Kling's idea for giving credits.

I think there is little doubt that these few changes would have significant consequences on higher education and the way it is done. And I think they would be mostly positive for education as a whole, particularly in helping students to actually achieve what education is supposed to be about: gaining knowledge. The goal for education should be gaining knowledge, not gaining credit. The latter should only be a means to facilitate the former.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Howard Schultz: Brave or Naive?

I hope Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks, understands what he's bringing on himself by calling for a campaign donation boycott. He is apparently naive enough to believe that such donations are in fact voluntary. Under crony capitalism, one does not get to choose whether or not one is one of the cronies. You may rest assured that anti-trust proceedings or some sort of investigation by the justice department will take place rather soon. There is an example to be made here, and you may rest assured it will be made.

If and when it happens, will people's eyes finally be opened as to what the real situation is in this country?

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Online Novel

I have an idea for an online novel. I will keep you, my dear readers, informed when it comes to fruition. It will be something like an episodic-epistolary novel. I just need my characters and a foundation from which to build.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

The Revolution in Education is Afoot

Alex Tabarrok over at Marginal Revolution discusses the coming education revolution, where he also mentions Arnold Kling's "A Means A." I am increasingly convinced my idea about free-lance professors is an idea of its time.

Tabarrok mentions the issue of teaching inequality -- with the range from average adjuncts to superstar lecturers. There is no getting out of this. In fact, it is a natural result of distribution of talents (of teachers as well as students). I think free-lance professors would actually help in this filtering process, as the students would decide who the superstars are, rather than universities pre-selecting possible superstars.

To cite Metafilter (cited by Tabarrok):

Stanford’s ‘Introduction to Artificial Intelligence’ course will be offered free to anyone online this fall. The course will be taught by SebastianThrun (Stanford) and PeterNorvig (Google, Director of Research), who expect to deal with the historically large course size using tools like Google Moderator.

There will two 75 min lectures per week, weekly graded homework assignments and quizzes, and the course is expected to require roughly 10 hours per week. Over 10,000 students have already signed up.

Either way you look at it, 10,000 students is amazing. The revolution is afoot.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

A Means A

After posting about the idea of free lance professors, I had a lot of blowback about problems of credibility, etc. Well, it seems that Arnold Kling has solved the problem.