Thursday, July 19, 2012

In the Midnight Hour

For job-related reasons, I have now embarked on a reading list of books related to entrepreneurial activities at colleges.  First up:

Michael Shinagel: “The Gates Unbarred” (The quotation marks are actually a part of the title—a sure sign that the author is not exactly of High Literary Bent.) 
The subtitle:  A History of University Extension at Harvard, 1910—2009
And, just in case you didn’t figure this out from the subtitle:  this is not a book you, The Reader, want to read.  Indeed, the Perceptive Reader is even now wondering:  How did a book with that title ever get published?  As the author noted incredulously in his introduction:  “When I consulted Samuel Eliot Morison’s official history of 1936, Three Centuries of Harvard, I found no mention of University Extension or the Commission on Extension Courses in his chapter ‘The Lowell Administration,’ even though President Lowell established both entities in his first year, 1909-1910.”  He then goes on to note all the other histories of Harvard which neglect Harvard Extension.  You, the Reader might think all this neglect is because Harvard Extension really isn’t all that important in the Grand Scheme of Things, but the author of the present book knows better.  The reason Harvard Extension is neglected is because it operated at night.  (Really, he says this—and I suspect he believes it.)  So, to return to the question the Reader earlier asked:  how did this book get published?  Well, the author is the current director of Harvard Extension and the book was published by Harvard Extension. 

Restating the Obvious:  you have no interest in reading this book.  None.  Trust me.  The title is the best part.  (Well technically the author’s original title, Harvard After Dark, is really the best part.  It’s sad to see an author move from a better title to a worse title.)   But, nevertheless, I am really glad Shinagel wrote the book and I am glad to have read it.  I am now a font of trivia about Harvard Extension School.  Sadly, I don’t think anyone will ever actually care to know any of Said Trivia.  (Did you know that the original maximum tuition for a Harvard Extension Course was the value of two bushels of wheat?  Did you know the Arms of Harvard Extension has two bushels of wheat on it to mark this important historical fact?) 

Extension Colleges are curious institutions, which is why I read the book.  Traditional college education now aims at 18-22 year olds and runs them through a B.A. degree.  Graduate degrees allow the 22 year olds to linger a bit longer in a state between adolescence and adulthood.  Mission accomplished—well at least one mission.  There is also that part of a college which is designed to, you know, educate.  And some education is not really aimed at the traditional student.  So, imagine you have a institution of higher learning and imagine you have a whole bunch of nontraditional audiences who are willing to pay for an array of courses or course-like things.  The traditional college curriculum is simply not designed to meet the desires of the nontraditional audience.  Hence the extension school. 

Extension school are like the unwanted step-children of colleges.  This is pretty odd when you think about the Modern Age.  Why haven’t colleges embraced the Extension schools?  Why hasn’t there been a rush to advertise how much the college is helping older, poorer, more disadvantaged, career-oriented students?  I think you can sell an extension school idea using all the modern pieties of the Academy.  So, why hasn’t this case been widely made?

I think it is branding.  Extension schools just aren’t exciting.  They need a theme song.  So, I am going to suggest this one.  How much education should a school provide?  All together now (with a rebel yell):  More, more, more.

Friday, July 13, 2012

A Bloke Called Plum

As I have noted before in this space (well, at least I think I have noted this before, it seems like the sort of thing I would have noted before, but this blog has been going on long enough that I now no longer remember what I have written (Egads!  Now I am wondering if I have already written a parenthetical aside on the fact that I can no longer remember what I have written in this blog (Fortunately, I am pretty sure I have not heretofore had a parenthetical aside on a parenthetical aside on this topic, so at least this third (and mercifully penultimate) parenthetical aside is new))), I am not a big fan of biography (curiously, if I had just started this blog post with the final clause of this sentence, neither the aforementioned nor the current parenthetical asides would have been necessary, and yet the topic for this blog post, instead of being buried in a plethora (I’ve always liked that word) of parentheses, might be apparent to the casual reader (as if such a being ever visited these provinces)).  Biographies tend to bore me.  While I can thoroughly enjoy a chapter or an article about someone’s life, a book-length treatment has far too many details about which I really don’t care.  I suspect that someday I will discover I love biographies after all, and then there will be a whole new set of books on my “To Read” list.  But right now, said list is really short on biography. There are a few odd biographies on that list, but most of them are there because there is something about the book other than the biography itself which intrigues me.

So, when a few years back Robert McCrum wrote a critically acclaimed biography of P.G. Wodehouse, I wasn’t even tempted to read it.  I heard many times how amazing it was, but the thought of actually reading it never crossed my mind.  Then a former student gave me a copy of the book.  Now, as I know I have noted before, I do read books which are given to me as gifts, so I was suddenly faced with the clash of general rules: 1) Never Read Biographies; 2) Always Read Books Given to You as a Gift.  Solution:  Plane Book.  I took it on my recent trip to a conference in Halifax.  (Halifax review:  a really dull city.  Sort of like the boring parts of Boston.  I have no idea why anyone would ever go there for vacation.)

Much to my surprise, I enjoyed the book.  (The book is cleverly titled Wodehouse: A Life.  McCrum seems to have received the memo that requires all books to have a colon and subtitle.  After all, if it had just been titled Wodehouse, we might have thought it was Wodehouse: A Death.)  It wasn’t hard to figure out why I enjoyed reading it—any book which has extensive excerpts from Wodehouse’s prose is bound to have extensive parts which are funny, really funny.  But, even with all the Wodehousian excerpts, by the end, I was really glad to be done.  The book is at its best when talking about his fiction.  The endless details about his missteps in WWII just weren't that interesting—I understand why documenting what happened is really important in a biography of the man, but that doesn't mean I enjoyed reading the documentation.  Yes, Wodehouse was really silly.  Yes, the Nazis took advantage of a naif.  Yes, the British public was understandably outraged.  Yawn.

I followed up reading the biography with reading Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit. I’m pretty sure that was the first time I have read this particular Jeeves and Wooster story.  (It’s hard to be sure, since the basic plot of every Jeeves and Wooster story is the same.)  What fascinated me was reading this book right after reading the biography had a curious side effect—I could see all the wires in the development of the plot.  Wodehouse writes in a careless, off-hand way (part of his extraordinary talent), but after reading all about Wodehouse, I noticed the craftsmanship in putting together the story.  Seeing the understructure, I can also say that this Jeeves and Wooster novel is not one of his best—the problem/solution dynamic is more serially organized (problem1-solution1-problem2-solution2-etc) than overlapping (problem1-problem2-problem3-solution to problem 2-problem4-etc.).  But, and this is the amazing thing about Wodehouse’s career, even this book is still stunning in its ability to show us part of the human condition. 

People don’t laugh enough.  Oddly, as we learn in Wodehouse: A Life, Wodehouse himself didn’t laugh enough.  Life is Funny.  Wodehouse shows us that Life is Funny.  So, if you haven’t read Wodehouse lately, do so soon.  A Wodehouse book cannot fail to help put everything back into perspective.  Which is also, by the way, the best explanation of why the story of Wodehouse and the Nazis should be seen as a comedy of errors.  Yes, the Nazis were evil, and yes, Wodehouse was a useful idiot, but even still, we should be able to laugh at the Nazis (think Hogan’s Heroes (would it even be possible to make that TV show today?)) without being accused of believing they did not commit great crimes. 

And, just so this doesn't end on a note about the nature of evil, here is a biography I have long really liked.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Coming Apart

Every now and then (and it is a rare event) a book is published which contains such insight and is of such importance that it is must reading for anyone concerned with the Big Question “How Should Man Organize Society?”  I am most pleased to announce that 2012 did see such a book.  Thus, you, The Reader, should read it.

The Book:  Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, by Charles Murray

This book is Murray’s magnum opus.  One can view all of Murray’s career as leading straight to this book.  From Losing Ground to In Pursuit: Of Happiness and Good Government to the much-maligned The Bell Curve to Human Accomplishment to Real Education there is a trajectory leading here.

The thesis:  the American Experiment is blowing apart as the society divides into two distinct classes which not only have very little in common, but also have very little interaction with each other.  There is one class which consists of everyone who would read this blog or Murray’s book.  They are professionals, attended good colleges, and live in relatively wealthy neighborhoods.  They buy similar products, shop at similar stores, and eat at similar restaurants.  Then there is that Other America.  Nobody from that other America will read this book.  They did not attend college, they eat at completely different restaurants, and they live in completely different neighborhoods. 

The differences between these two groups shows up starkly in what Murray identifies as the Founding Virtues, the things that made America what it has been.  The four founding virtues:  Industriousness, Honesty, Marriage, and Religiosity.  On all four virtues there is a sharp difference between the two segments of American society.  On one side—the side on which the readers of this blog fall—there are still high levels of a work ethic, honesty, marriage rates and religious belief.  In the Other America, all four things have disintegrated.  Murray’s book thus raises the troubling question:  Can the American Experiment survive.  Not will it survive, but can it survive?

This is, in other words, a book which will make you think long and hard about the nature of society.  It may be too mired in contemporary events to become Great Book, but it wrestles with the issues raised in the Great Books in a very compelling manner.  I am of mixed mind about the conclusion of this analysis—and so, incidentally, is Murray.  It’s hard to see how one could not be of mixed mind after reading the evidence Murray marshals.

The book also has one terribly amusing side if you are amused by academic political posturing.  The Left, in particular the Marxist Left, has long been obsessed with the existence of Class Division in society.  And here we have the libertarian Murray, someone with solid conservative credentials, arguing that the class divide in America is important and tearing society apart.  So, will the Academic Left rush to embrace this book?  If you laughed at that question, then you understand academic politics.

Murray is anathema in academic circles.  Just drop his name at a faculty cocktail party if you want to be left alone.  The Left hated Losing Ground because it dared suggest that maybe the Welfare State was hurting the poor.  The argument wasn’t that we shouldn’t care about the poor and so we shouldn’t have welfare (which is what liberals know conservatives really believe in the darkest recesses of their dark hearts).  The argument was that because we care about the poor, we really shouldn’t put in place programs which make them worse off.  So, Murray, ever the imp in policy discussions, started off as a villain.  Then along came The Bell Curve, easily the most reviled and least read book which has been published in the last 30 years.  The book argued that the American Experiment was being torn apart by intellectual segregation.  Smart people were  marrying other smart people and moving to places where only other smart people lived and not interacting with not-so-smart people.  There is, in other words a class system developing in America.  How many factory workers or sales clerks or minimum wage workers did you have over at your last backyard barbecue?  (College students working at such a job do not count.)  Indeed, how many non-professional class people do you even know?  And if you know any, how many of them do you only know because you attend an evangelical church?  (The evangelical churches are the last remaining bastion of interactions between people in different social classes—and even they may be at the outset of the same segregation which has happened in the rest of society.)  The Bell Curve documents all this, all things which the Academic Left has been arguing for years, but since they knew Murray was a Conservative and (thus) Evil and they know that all conservatives are racists (by definition), the “debate” about The Bell Curve centered entirely on the existence of the two chapters (in a very long book) discussing the implications of the overall argument to the matter of race.  (The chapters on race were, by the way, far and away the least interesting chapters in the whole book.)  It was readily obvious that nobody vilifying Murray (and, technically his co-author Herrnstein) had actually read the book, let alone the chapters being attacked.  But, why let evidence get in the way of a chance to call a conservative a racist even if the conservative is actually arguing exactly what you have been arguing for years?  (Well, to be charitable (always a good thing), the Academic Left does not like the idea that there may be a genetic component to intelligence—and since Murray and Herrnstein note that almost every researcher on intelligence thinks that genetics plays at least some role in determining intelligence, there is an element of the argument which runs against the pieties of the Left.  Also, the argument implicitly lumps university faculty into the same group as Wall Street bankers, and that is particularly annoying to academics.)  The furor over The Bell Curve explains the oddity of the subtitle of Murray’s new book, by the way.  By limiting the book to a study of “White America,” and documenting the collapse of the founding virtues within “White America,” it is hard to spin this as a racist tract.  (Of course, I am sure that some enterprising academic has already figure out a way to call the book “racist.”  After all, repeat after me: Conservatives are Inherently Racists.)

The book has already had one conversational benefit.  Not too long ago, I was talking with one of my colleagues who argued that conservatives simply don’t care about or even acknowledge class.  So, I said, “What about Charles Murray’s most recent book?”  He looked it up and later sheepishly admitted later that well maybe some conservatives do care about class.  Academics are funny.

But, all the academic politics are an aside.  If you are going to read one contemporary work of social science this year, this is the one to read.  And you should read at least one contemporary work of social science this year.