Archive for January, 2007

Risky Resolutions

January 31, 2007

Congressmen and Senators are debating a set of resolutions that will establish their displeasure with progress in Iraq. These resolutions are non-binding; notwithstanding their grumbling, Congress has confirmed General David Petraeus to command the multi-national forces in Iraq. Gen. Petraeus and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates have explicitly stated that passage of any such measure encourages the enemy by broadcasting American irresolution.

The proposed resolutions, especially those put forth and supported by a number of Republicans up for election in 2008, have drawn enormous ire from Republican party activists. Their criticism has focused primarily on the probable negative effects of such a resolution. However, should Gen. Petraeus’s approach succeed (as many resolution opponents hope), current public opinion will reverse and those who voted for “retreat lite” may find their credibility beyond repair.

UPDATE: Jules Crittenden makes the same point (via Roger L. Simon).


Friday Mystery Author: Colin Fletcher

January 29, 2007

This week’s mystery passage was from “the hiker’s bible:” The Complete Walker, by Colin Fletcher. This was a favorite book of mine in my boyhood; I enjoyed the energetic, cheerful, pragmatic prose, the thoroughgoing organization, as much as I enjoyed hiking, and indeed under Mr. Fletcher’s influence I relished assembling my kit before an expedition. I remember following his lead by tearing the labels off tea bags to save weight. Truly, as the Amazon reviewer says: “800+ pages of the most useful, precise information i’ve ever read anywhere … eloquent, realistic, CLEAR, and mildly humourous…”

Yet Mr. Fletcher is also capable of the following (from the book’s coda):

When I open my mind and let the memories spill out, I find a many-hued mosaic. I remember the odd excitement and the restricted yet infinitely open world I have moved through several times when I have clambered up – very late at night, and following the little pool from my flashlight beam – to the flat, grassy summit of the hill on which I wrote at last the opening chapter of this book.


Real Men of Genius

January 29, 2007

A day or so ago, I blogged about Charles Murray’s somewhat pessimistic views on education – e.g., the impact of schooling is fundamentally limited by underlying intelligence, g, which is normally distributed in the population. Doubtless this genetic determinism earned snorts from supporters of emotional intelligence, multiple intelligence, etc.

Today, Tyler Cowen links a new blog, The Genius in All of Us, which could have been established to counterattack Mr. Murray’s thesis (though the author, journalist and author David Shenk, hasn’t mentioned Mr. Murray specifically). It looks like a blend of cognitive science, profiles of geniuses like David Beckham, and genius-related current events.

  • Murray: “How about raising intelligence? It would be nice if we knew how, but we do not.”
  • Shenk: “For a hundred years, we have assumed that we are all subject to strict genetic limits on our intelligence, creativity, and agility — limits that define who we are and how well we succeed. Now evidence is mounting that these limits simply do not exist.”
  • Murray: “[T]he top 10% of the intelligence distribution has a huge influence on whether our economy is vital or stagnant, our culture healthy or sick, our institutions secure or endangered. … Our future depends crucially on how we educate the next generation of people gifted with unusually high intelligence.” [Mr. Murray’s emphasis.]
  • Shenk: “First, a program focused on the top 10% I.Q. scorers diverts resources from the people who need it most — the 90% who aren’t as likely to succeed and therefore could benefit the most from extra help. Second, if we want our schools to truly nurture talent — encourage great achievement from those with special potential, I.Q. is not the place to start. In fact, it may be the worst possible place.”

Mr. Murray’s quotes above are from a three-part Wall Street Journal series: Intelligence in the Classroom, What’s Wrong with Vocational School, and Aztecs vs. Greeks. Mr. Shenk’s quotes are from the following posts at his blog: “Gifted and Talented” School Programs, Part 1 and Untapped Potential.

Higher Education Impartially Considered

January 27, 2007

Charles Murray, W.H. Brady Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and co-author of The Bell Curve (1994) had a provocative series of essays in the Wall Street Journal last week.

  • Intelligence in the Classroom: “Our ability to improve the academic accomplishment of students in the lower half of the distribution of intelligence is severely limited. … [T]he numbers used to indict the public schools are missing a crucial component. For example, in the 2005 round of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), 36% of all fourth-graders were below the NAEP’s ‘basic achievement’ score in reading. It sounds like a terrible record. But we know from the mathematics of the normal distribution that 36% of fourth-graders also have IQs lower than 95.”
  • What’s Wrong with Vocational School? “[I]t makes sense for only about 15% of the population, 25% if one stretches it, to get a college education. And yet more than 45% of recent high school graduates enroll in four-year colleges. … They are in college to improve their chances of making a good living. What they really need is vocational training. But nobody will say so, because ‘vocational training’ is second class. ‘College’ is first class.”
  • Aztecs vs. Greeks: “[T]he top 10% of the intelligence distribution has a huge influence on whether our economy is vital or stagnant, our culture healthy or sick, our institutions secure or endangered. … Our future depends crucially on how we educate the next generation of people gifted with unusually high intelligence. [Mr. Murray’s emphasis.] … In short, I am calling for a revival of the classical definition of a liberal education, serving its classic purpose: to prepare an elite to do its duty.”

Just one thought: education of the vocational or professional kind, such as Mr. Murray recommends, is a specific investment. That is, it is irrevocable – like a power plant built next to a particular mine head.

As Mr. Murray rightly points out, a degree in English, communications, international relations, sociology, psychology, history, or even economics “certifies nothing” – it’s merely a signal for employers. While graduates in mathematics and the hard sciences are committed to careers in medicine or engineering, humanities majors are much more portable precisely because they certify nothing. Like a floating power plant, a humanities major is non-specific: the holder can leave for a more favorable market without abandoning a large sunk cost.

Perhaps some humanities majors would not invest in human capital unless it was portable. Like power plants in developing nations, these investments would never be made unless their risk could be reduced. Colleges oblige with majors that commit graduates to no particular career.

Portable human capital (e.g. the humanities), then: (i) encourages human capital investment and (ii) helps cushion and smooth economic displacement. Both effects should offset in part the waste that Mr. Murray disparages.

UPDATE: Author and journalist David Shenk argues pretty much the opposite of Mr. Murray at his new blog.

Friday Mystery Author: January 26, 2007

January 26, 2007

Welcome to this week’s edition of Friday Mystery Author, in which we challenge all comers to identify the source (author and title) of a more or less obscure passage from literature – broadly defined.

After dark, you must always know exactly where the flashlight is. Otherwise, chaos. My flashlight spends the night in an easy-to-feel position in one bedside boot. And I have a rule that when it is in intermittent use, such as before and during dinner, I never let go my grasp on it without putting it in the pocket designated for the night (which pocket depends on what I’m wearing). This rule is so strict that I rarely break it more than three or four times a night.

Come to think of it, it might be worth tying the flashlight to a loop of nylon cord large enough to slip over your head.

For more on flashlights, see page 221.

This one is a little more unusual than the last few editions, perhaps, so if you don’t recognize it, just say hello. Last week’s edition is here and the answer is here.

Some Links

January 26, 2007

I’m sorry for light posting recently – work has taken precedence over blogging. In the meantime, here are a couple of entertaining links:

Friday Mystery Author: Mary Shelley

January 23, 2007

This week’s Friday Mystery Author was Mary Shelley; the passage, from Frankenstein. Congratulations to Imani of The Books of My Numberless Dreams for getting this one right off the bat.  Here is another sample from Frankenstein’s account of himself:

Partly from curiosity, and partly from idleness, I went into the lecturing room, which M. Waldman entered shortly after. This professor was very unlike his colleague. He appeared about fifty years of age, but with an aspect expressive of the greatest benevolence; a few grey hairs covered his temples, but those at the back of his head were nearly black. His person was short, but remarkably erect; and his voice the sweetest I had ever heard. He began his lecture by a recapitulation of the history of chemistry, and the various improvements made by different men of learning, pronouncing with fervour the names of the most distinguished discoverers. He then took a cursory view of the present state of the science, and explained many of its elementary terms. After having made a few preparatory experiments, he concluded with a panegyric upon modern chemistry, the terms of which I shall never forget:–

“The ancient teachers of this science,” said he, “promised impossibilities, and performed nothing. The modern masters promise very little; they know that metals cannot be transmuted, and that the elixir of life is a chimera. But these philosophers, whose hands seem only made to dabble in dirt, and their eyes to pore over the microscope or crucible, have indeed performed miracles. They penetrate into the recesses of nature, and show how she works in her hiding places. They ascend into the heavens: they have discovered how the blood circulates, and the nature of the air we breathe. They have acquired new and almost unlimited powers; they can command the thunders of heaven, mimic the earthquake, and even mock the invisible world with its own shadows.”

Such were the professor’s words–rather let me say such the words of fate, enounced to destroy me. As he went on, I felt as if my soul were grappling with a palpable enemy; one by one the various keys were touched which formed the mechanism of my being: chord after chord was sounded, and soon my mind was filled with one thought, one conception, one purpose. So much has been done, exclaimed the soul of Frankenstein–more, far more, will I achieve: treading in the steps already marked, I will pioneer a new way, explore unknown powers, and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation.

Stop by this Friday for the next edition of Friday Mystery Author.

Friday Mystery Author: January 19, 2007

January 20, 2007

Welcome to this week’s Friday Mystery Author, just under the wire. Every Friday we post a selection from literature more or less obscure, and challenge all comers to identify the title and author. Or, just say hello in the comments. We’re glad you’re here.

But here were books, and here were men who had penetrated deeper and knew more. I took their word for all that they averred, and I became their disciple. It may appear strange that such should arise in the eighteenth century; but while I followed the routine of education in the schools of Geneva, I was, to a great degree, self taught with regard to my favourite studies. My father was not scientific, and I was left to struggle with a child’s blindness, added to a student’s thirst for knowledge. Under the guidance of my new preceptors, I entered with the greatest diligence into the search of the philosopher’s stone and the elixir of life; but the latter soon obtained my undivided attention. Wealth was an inferior object; but what glory would attend the discovery, if I could banish disease from the human frame, and render man invulnerable to any but a violent death!

Nor were these my only visions. The raising of ghosts or devils was a promise liberally accorded by my favourite authors, the fulfilment of which I most eagerly sought; and if my incantations were always unsuccessful, I attributed the failure rather to my own inexperience and mistake than to a want of skill or fidelity in my instructors. And thus for a time I was occupied by exploded systems, mingling, like an unadept, a thousand contradictory theories, and floundering desperately in a very slough of multifarious knowledge, guided by an ardent imagination and childish reasoning, till an accident again changed the current of my ideas.

As always, stop by on Monday for the answer. Last week’s Friday Mystery Author is here. Have a good weekend.

More Defense of Idealism

January 19, 2007

Neo-Neocon says that idealism is the neocon agenda:

[T]rying to transform these regions into functioning democracies that protect human rights … is the neocon agenda, and I’m all for it.

A Historical Note on the Duke Kerfluffle

January 18, 2007

The lacrosse saga continues at Duke University. The latest development: the so-called Group of 88 (now numbering 90, apparently after significant turnover) has released a statement rejecting criticism of an earlier advertisement, deploring “the atmosphere that allows sexism, racism, and sexual violence to be so prevalent on campus,” and calling on “all of us at Duke to do something about this.”

The earlier ad featured quotes from Duke students “shouting and whispering about what happened to this young woman and to themselves.” The Group of 88’s knee-jerk condemnation of the accused lacrosse players and allegations of pervasive racism and sexism at Duke betrayed an attitude conditioned more by noxious stereotypes than by the nuances of actual life – not to mention a disregard for the probably innocent young men, also Duke students. (For more, see Durham-in-Wonderland or LaShawn Barber.)

To an attentive observer, the first stages of this affliction were apparent over 10 years ago. Duke was in my first screen of undergraduate colleges. In those pre-internet days, Barron’s Guide to American Colleges was a key resource. Among the 15 or so colleges that I initially considered, Duke was the only one that advertised in its Barron’s profile that it required “sensitivity training” of all freshmen. Not enamored of such a politicized campus, I never requested a viewbook from Duke. I never expected my snap judgement to be so gaudily vindicated.