Briefly noted: Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life — William Deresiewicz

Excellent Sheep is great though polemical—snide remarks about tech companies are neither true nor useful—and one gets a sense of its contents from “Solitude and Leadership: If you want others to follow, learn to be alone with your thoughts,” which went viral for the best of reasons (as opposed to the worst, which is more common). “Eros in the Classroom” is also good, though curiously erotically attenuated, and could be read profitably in tandem with Laura Kipnis’s “Sexual Paranoia Strikes Academe.” The two point to the need for satirization of contemporary academic mores, but that satirization is already so thorough that its failure to make much of a dent inside academia is obvious.

excellent_SheepBut Excellent Sheep is comprehensive, despite its overreach. But major orators know that if they have the audience the audience will forgive much, as such is the case here. The book is situated as one that fills a need and one that speaks to the author’s earlier self:

This book, in many ways, is a letter to my twenty-year-old self. It talks about the kinds of things I wish someone had encouraged me to think about when I was going to college—such as what the point of college might be in the first place.

I was like so many kids today (and so many kids back then.) I went off to college like a sleepwalker, like a zombie. College was a blank. College was the ‘next thing.’ [. . .] Up ahead were vaguely understood objectives: status, wealth, getting to the top—in a word, ‘success.’

I was perhaps slightly less blank but barely so. That being said, I often try to talk to current college students about what college is about and usually get resistance. So it may be that Deresiewicz’s twenty-year-old self wouldn’t listen to older Deresiewicz anyway. And, like almost any book of this sort, Excellent Sheep probably won’t be read by many of the students who could most benefit from reading it. Many who might be handed it might resist it. Slightly analogously, I’m struck by Emily Nussbaum’s description of Mary Gaitskill’s Bad Behavior: “In 1988, when her short-story collection Bad Behavior came out, it became a dorm-room bible for women I knew: Finally, here was a fiction writer unafraid to walk straight through the feminist battlefields of that very strange period.” I’ve assigned it before and it’s not been treated as a Bible; some students cottoned to it but some strongly resisted, though I also don’t think of it as dealing with “the feminist battlefields” of anything: I think of the stories as being about individuals, not dreary ideologies or ideological think-pieces.

Deresiewicz has a keen grasp of what’s happening in contemporary academia and, often, life itself. He writes of a “system,” or “a set of tightly interlocking parts,” including “private and affluent public high schools; the ever-growing industry of tutors and consultants, test-prep courses and enrichment programs; the admissions process itself; [. . .] the brand-name graduate schools and employment opportunities that come after the BA [. . .]” and of course much more. But this paragraph is the most interesting:

What that system does to kds and how they can escape from it, what it does to our society and how we can dismantle it—those are the subjects of this book. I was teaching a class at Yale on the literature of friendship. One day we got around to talking about the importance of being alone. The ability to engage in introspection, I suggested, is the essential precondition for living the life of the mind, and the essential precondition for introspection is solitude. My students took this in for a second—introspection, solitude, the life of the mind, things they probably had not been asked to think about before—then one of them said, with a dawning sense of self-awareness, “So are you just saying that we’re all just, like really excellent sheep?”

He goes on: “The system manufactures students who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose.” I’ve noticed those things. They are of course not pervasive. But I also find them impossible to miss.

Excellent Sheep is a truer work of philosophy than 99% of the stuff published under the banner of “philosophy.”

Already I’ve chewed through a thousand words and two long blockquotes and have gotten to page three of Excellent Sheep. That should speak to the book’s quality. To attend to its every argument would be to almost write another book. As I said before, don’t trust everything. But do read it. It is also interesting to me that this article about Peter Thiel describes his mistrust of the education system, which partially evolved from his unhappiness with a track-based life and system. Yet this system persists for reasons, some of which Megan McArdle articulates in “What Really Scares Helicopter Parents.” The system has been in construction for decades. Startups are one route around them. Self-publishing is another. One can no doubt imagine more.

Many people are bad at being and bad at purpose. Including, possibly, me. Excellent Sheep challenges them, which is to say, us.


Links: Demography is destiny, how could you like that book?, open access, friendship, and more

* “As China’s Workforce Dwindles, the World Scrambles for Alternatives:” an underreported story.

* “How Could You Like That Book?” by Tim Parks:

No sooner have I articulated my amazement, my sense of betrayal almost, than I begin to feel insecure. Is it really possible that so many people I respect have got it wrong? Close friends as well. Am I an inveterate elitist? A puritan? Or resentful of other people’s success? Shouldn’t I perhaps relax and enjoy my reading a little more rather than approaching books with constant suspicion?

The world is full of people who admire books I don’t and vice-versa. When I tell students I found the first Hunger Games or Harry Potter books dull they’re astonished.

* “Open Access and the Power of Editorial Boards: Why Elsevier Plays Hardball with Deviant Linguists.” To me the most intersting thing is that equivalents of haven’t arise in the humanities. That may say more about the intellectual importance of the humanities than any other piece of data, information, or opinion.

* Why car dealers are reluctant to sell electric cars, a bit of ill news.

* Dream of New Kind of Credit Union Is Extinguished by Bureaucracy.

* “How our housing choices make adult friendships more difficult.”

* “The Yale Problem Begins in High School,” by Jonathan Haidt of The Righteous Mind fame. Notice especially the links Haidt offers.

* “‘Self and Soul’: Mark Edmundson’s biting critique of modern complacency.”

* “Literature vs genre is a battle where both sides lose,” an over-discussed topic maybe, but also a true one. Some points, like this one, are ridiculous: “But literary authors aren’t self-publishing their books on Kindle. Quite the opposite. They have a swish sounding publisher.” See also last year’s “Tyler Cowen on Paul Krugman on Amazon on the buzz:”

I’m most amazed at the way the same class of writers who five years ago were aghast at the lack of support for literary fiction among publishers are now the ones decrying Amazon and supporting the same publishers who were until recently the cravenly commercial forces destroying “quality” literary fiction.

Everyone gets their own sandbox? On Syria:

From “What is going on in Syria? (model this):”

I think first in terms of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, which also saw the collapse of an untenable-once-placed-under-pressure nation-state, followed by atrocities.

My own pet theory as a very much non-expert who wastes some attention on the news is that Iraq and Syria need to be broken into smaller pieces based on ethnicity: Kurdistan, Sunni-stan, and Shia-stan, and perhaps others. From what I understand Kurdistan is already more or less operating, just without an official declaration of statehood; there still isn’t an Iraqi “state” per se. “Iraqis” don’t really fight for Iraq: they fight for their ethnic groups.

Breaking countries into single-ethnicity pieces may be the major lesson of Yugoslavia and perhaps World War II, which had the unfortunate effect of making many European countries close to monoethnic.

There are problems with this solution in the Middle East (e.g. Turkey and Kurds) but there also seem to be many problems with the status quo, to the extent there is a status quo.

Perhaps the only thing average individuals can do is attempt to use less oil at the margin (shift from a hybrid car to a plug-in hybrid when necessary, from a standard car to a hybrid, and there are others), since oil is indirectly funding so much of the violence. When I read about large-scale, seemingly intractable problems, I often want more writers to ask, “What is an average person supposed to do?” and then attempt to answer the question.

Note, however, that Iraq and Syria also have cousin marriage problems that may destabilize the state and empower smaller groups.

Still, take this analysis skeptically, given my views on Iraq War II when it happened, and given too that foreign policy seems like William Goldman’s description of Hollywood: nobody knows anything. The CIA famously missed the fall of the Soviet Union. Pretty much no one expected World War I. The U.S. thought Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq War II were going to go well. And so on.

The U.S. has been fighting little wars (apart from the obvious big ones) for its entire existence, and while the tools have changed the rhetoric only sometimes has. In addition, overall I see the world as getting better. One account of this can be seen in Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature. Most of Latin America is doing well. Even Africa is doing better than is sometimes assumed. The thing the U.S. and the West in general most have on our side is time and immigration patterns. Pretty much no one is fighting to emigrate from their current country to, say, Russia. Even current scare-story China sees more Chinese leaving than others trying to enter. Most parts of the world that aren’t tremendously fucked up are attempting to emulate the U.S. and Europe in many, though not all, dimensions. The long-term trends are positive for most people in most places even if Syria is a disaster.

To my mind giving everyone their own sandbox is a move in the right direction, despite opposition.

Links: Outlier pants, your microbiome, academia, words direct from Aleppo, MRSA, and more!

* “Burgers and fries have nearly killed our ancestral microbiome:” or how real food promotes good things in our guts, and vice-versa. Perhaps the most actionable piece you’ll read today. Plus: “Forget paleo, go mid-Victorian: it’s the healthiest diet you’ve never heard of.”

* “The Revenge of the Coddled: An Interview with Jonathan Haidt.”

* Are English departments better than what I, and possibly you, think? I hope so but I’m skeptical. Freddie also doesn’t have a TT job right now; we’ll see if he gets one and how his views might evolve over time. This is a good time to reiterate “What you should know BEFORE you start grad school / PhD programs in English Literature: The economic, financial, and opportunity costs.” Short version: Don’t do it.

* Aleppo-based VLC contributor speaks to the Paris attacks.

* “Saudi Arabia, an ISIS that has made it.” In political discussions I often point out that Saudi Arabia’s tone, values, and policies are diametrically opposed to the ones espoused by the American and European governments that often support Saudi Arabia.

* California’s DOT Admits [the obvious:] More Roads Mean More Traffic.

* A MRSA vaccine is in the works.

* Case Study: Outlier on Creating the 21st Century Jean. Has anyone worn these? I’m thinking about getting a pair.

* On Mary Gaitskill’s The Mare. Books about children rarely interest me (exception: Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials), but Gaitskill’s Bad Behavior is for the right person amazing.

Life: The trap edition

The pursuit of easier life resulted in much hardship, and not for the last time. It happens to us today. How many young college graduates have taken demanding jobs in high-powered firms, vowing that they will work hard to earn money that will enable them to retire and pursue their real interests when they are thirty-five? But by the time they reach that age, they have large mortgages, children to school, houses in the suburbs that necessitate at least two cars per family, and a sense that life is not worth living without really good wine and expensive holidays abroad. What are they supposed to do, go back to digging up roots? No, they double their efforts and keep slaving away.

—Yuval Noah Harari in Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, which is quite good, though the above is out of context.

I wonder how much of the financial arms race is driven by a) parochial housing policies and b) the number of people who genuinely enjoy the work at high-powered firms. Some small number of people do really enjoy being lawyers. Not many, but they exist.

Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change From the Cult of Technology — Kentaro Toyama

My review on Grant Writing Confidential is actually germane to readers of The Story’s Story, too, so I’ll start by directing you there. The book’s central and brilliant point is simple: for at least a century various people have imagined that better technology and the spread of technology will solve all sorts of social ills and improve all sorts of institutions, with education being perhaps the most obvious.

Geek_heresy2There are many other fascinating points—too many to describe all of them here. To take one, it’s often hard to balance short- and long-term wants. Many people want to write a novel but don’t want to write right now. Over time, that means the novel never gets written, because novels get written one sentence and one day at a time. Technology does not resolve this challenge. If anything, Internet access may make it worse. Many of us have faced an important long-term project only to diddle around on websites:

Short-term pleasure often leads to long-term dissatisfaction. That intuition underlies the psychologist’s distinction between hedonia and eudaimonia. Pleasure-seeking hedonism is questionable, but maybe long-term eudaimonic life satisfaction is good.

One sees these issues all over. Porn remains ridiculously popular (though some consumers of it are no doubt fine). Many people drink soda despite how incredibly detrimental soda is to health, and in my view how bad soda tastes compared to, say, ice cream. TV watching time is still insanely high, though it may be slightly down from its previous highs. There are various ways one can try to remove agency from the people watching porn while drinking soda and keeping one eye on a TV in the background, but the simpler solution is to look at people’s actions and see revealed preferences at work.

Most people don’t have the souls of artists and innovators trapped in average everyday lives. Most people want their sodas and breads and sugars and TV and SUVs and all the other things that elite media critics decry (often reasonable, in my view). Most people don’t connect what they’re doing right now to their long-term outcomes. Most people don’t want to be fat but the soda is right here. A lot of people want a better love life but in the meantime let’s check out Pornhub. Most people want amazing Silicon Valley tech jobs, but Netflix is here right now and Coursera seems far away.

And, to repeat myself, technology doesn’t fix any of that. As Toyama says of one project that gives computer access to children, “technology amplifies the children’s propensities. To be sure, children have a natural desire to learn and play and grow. But they also have a natural desire to distract themselves in less productive ways. Digital technology amplifies both of these appetites.” I had access to computers as a teenager. I wasted more time than I want to contemplate playing games on them, rather than building the precursors to Facebook. Large markets and social issues emerge from individual choices, and a lot of elite media types want to blame environment instead of individual. But each individual chooses computer games—or something real.

It turns out that “Low-cost technology is just not an effective way to fight inequality, because the digital divide is much more a symptom than a cause of other divides. Under the Law of Amplification, technology – even when it’s equally distributed – isn’t a bridge, but a jack. It widens existing disparities.” But those disparities emerge from individual behaviors. People who want to be writers need to write, now. People who want better partners or sex lives need to quit the sugar, now. One could pair any number of behaviors and outcomes in this style, and one could note that most people don’t do those things. The why seems obvious to me but maybe not to others. The people who become elite developers often say coding is fun for them in a way it apparently isn’t to others (including me). Writing is fun to me in a way it apparently isn’t to others. So I do a lot of it, less because it’s good for me than because it’s fun, for whatever temperamental reason. Root causes interest me, as they do many people with academic temperaments. Root causes don’t interest most people.

Let me speak to my own life. I’ve said variations on this before, but when I was an undergrad I remember how astounded some of my professors were when they’d recommend a book and I’d read it and then show up in office hours. I didn’t understand why they were astounded until I started teaching, and then I realized what most students are like and how different the elite thinkers and doers are from the average. And this is at pretty decent colleges and universities! I’m not even dealing with the people who never started.

Most of the techno-optimists, though—I used to be one—don’t realize the history of the promise of technology to solve problems:

As a computer scientist, my education included a lot of math and technology but little of the history or philosophy of my own field. This is a great flaw of most science and engineering curricula. We’re obsessed with what works today, and what might be tomorrow, but we learn little about what came before.

Yet technology doesn’t provide motivation. It’s easy to forget this. Still, I wonder if giving 100 computers to 100 kids might be useful because one of them will turn out to be very important. The idea that a small number of people drive almost all human progress is underrated. In The Enlightened Economy Joel Mokyr observes that the Industrial Revolution may actually have been driven primarily by ten to thirty thousand people. That’s a small number and a small enough number that the addition to or subtraction of a single individual from the network may have serious consequences.

This isn’t an idea that I necessarily buy but it is one I find intriguing and possibly applicable to a large number of domains. Toyama’s work may reinforce it.

The Charlie Hebdo response:

Is here:

Charlie_Hebdo on the paris massacre

Still, it is not obvious to me that religion, especially in its modern Western forms, is intrinsically opposed to the other items on that list, all of which I support and ideally enact.

The Tyler Cowen response is “So many questions…” That was posted almost two days ago and more questions still remain than answers.

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