Thursday, March 28, 2019

On The Teaching Of History In College

First this:

Now me:

This is a revealing essay though not necessarily disjointed or chaotic. Sadly for it and Vanzant nonethlelss, it’s most revealing as to what it says about Vanzant than what he says about teaching history as such.

Four examples among, I fear, many:

The first example:

Let’s say glory/gory is a useful beginning rhetorical binary, however a caricature, to set up initially broadly different approaches to teaching history. Well, the first thing this essay doesn’t do after setting it up is to disabuse us of its ultimate usefulness and its actuality as a caricature. Each side of the binary presupposes something ideological not historical. Vanzant defines himself as of the gory side. We can likely infer, then, what he thinks of America and for that matter the developed west. And not only does Vanzant not abandon his binary, he sticks to it throughout and doubles down on it at the end of his essay.

What are students to do with such a teacher: what are students to do with a teacher who wants to cater to what they want of him rather than what he wants of them; what are students to do with a teacher who reels off “critical thinking” mindlessly—it is a PoMo trope—without delving into what is its view of the world and what are its assumptions about how to approach studying, in this case, history; and what are students to do with a teacher who, it seems, blithely and unselfconsciously puts historicism over history?

The second example:

What are students to do with a teacher who can seriously present an argument about why a particular historian should fear appearing on a stage with Christine Hoff Sommers, the argument being that that appearance might serve to strengthen or spread Sommers’s ideas? 

Vanzant offering the counter argument that the appearance might serve to strengthen or spread the opposing ideas and his tilting in favour of the second argument are insufficient.

Is he so removed from the principles and values the university and the humanities within the university are meant to embody, the search for truth, intellectual diversity, the civil exchange of ideas as arguments—what is history but an argument?—based on evidence and logic, open mindedness and conceding to a better argument, among others?

No academics worth their salt can present the first argument against appearing with Sommers as having a shred of plausibility. But Vanzant so presents it. It should only be mentioned, in fact, in order to shred it to minute tatters by way of the very ethos and values the university is meant to institutionalize and pass on to its students.

The third example:

Why is a history teacher turning to fiction as an important pedagogic tool? The study of literature is its own discipline with its own universe of principles, techniques and assumptions about studying works of literary art mirroring and reflecting reality. So too does history have its own unique rigour deeply rooted in primary and prosaic evidence. It’s not primarily an ideological drama to be conveyed by fictional characters standing in for ideological presuppositions, say colonizer as against anti colonizer. What’s wanted is the unearthing and study of the evidence, the marshalling of the evidence and then hypothesizing and making arguments based on the evidence.

Vanzant’s students tend to hate history. Well, that presents him with a challenge: to make the study of history stimulating within the rigorous means and methods proper to the discipline; to let fascination emerge from the contentious but supportable different ways of seeing what interpretations the evidence leads to. After meeting that challenge as best as a teacher is conscientiously able to, the problem rests with the students. If they have trouble, all at their level, coping with, maintaining their interest in, mastering, the demands of the discipline, then give them the appropriate lower grade or fail them. They’re not customers or clients. They’re, most of them, intellectual neophytes needing educating. Fiction at most should be supplemental reading in studying history.

Fourth, final and the most glaring example of the four:

Vanzant, at the end of his essay , (slightly edited):

…On that campus, (Yale) it seems a further leftward turn is helping to save the humanities, which is great to hear. And if that approach is indeed representative of how the humanities can stay relevant in the modern university, then everybody concerned can take a deep breath. Everything is going to be fine. We just need to be doing what we’ve been doing for the last fifty years…

…If the crisis continues, academia is eventually going to have to decide if the only response to the fatigue in our classes is to get even Zinnier…
….Conservative critics…depict….as ideologues first and educators second…they are wrong…liberal professors had no need to choose between these two roles, because their revisionist ideology was pedagogically effective. But that has now changed…

Reams, I think, could be written about these words. They are so intellectually flawed and outlandish, I’m tempted to think Vanzant isn’t serous and it’s all tongue in cheek. But that temptation is easy to resist: he’s so doggedly unaware of himself throughout the entire essay and so guilelessly candid that he seems a naïf. He so easily conflates pedagogy and ideology without a nuance of concern about ideology informing pedagogy that it’s breathtaking.

What if, one might ask, the glory side of his gory/glory binary carried the day and made history appealing to students and saved the fate of the discipline in the humanities? What would he say? If Vanzant weren’t in that instance to mouth the same enthusiasms—…everybody concerned can take a deep breath…everything is going to be fine…—then it would be true for him that hidebound ideology trumps education, the doomed fate of history as a discipline notwithstanding.

And if he were to mouth the same enthusiasms at pedagogically ascendant glory, then his fecklessness as an educator would flash as glaringly as a huge lit neon sign in the dark. 

His abiding stark misconception is precisely his failure to distinguish ideology from education and pedagogy. It’s his failure to understand his need to be, whatever his presuppositions, relatively disinterested in his teaching, to realize he must—especially to undergraduates—cover the main events in the history he teaches, present both sides of the central historical controversies over these events and guide his students to work hard to research and think these issues through to come to their own defensible conclusions. 

That last isn’t the unity of ideology and education. It’s education.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

A Note On Ross Douthat And Elite Education

First Douthat: Douthat 

Then me:

It’s me or Douthat, but I often have trouble understanding his exact argument.

He says the centrist fix is, at least in his version:

....Blending the two critiques can get you the centrist prescription for reform: Elite schools should emphasize class-based rather than race-based affirmative action, the argument runs, while phasing out preferences for jocks and legacies that give privileged whites their own leg up — a combination that might yield a still-diverse, more authentically meritocratic upper class...

(Sidebar, I don’t know if that’s a centrist fix or any kind of fix. Why have any affirmative action if we’re deemphasizing sports and legacy admissions? Why not revert to pure merit  by either just taking those who score highest or if the desire is not inflexibly to follow mere marks where some differences are insignificant, then get a floor and in some blindfold way pick from among the cohort that can stand on it? The exception to that is lending a financial hand to those who qualify but can’t afford to go. That’s a kind of affirmative action I can get behind.) 

But Douthat’s point is to counter argue his version of a centrist fix.

He says, (and it sounds far fetched to me):

....Elite institutions, by their very nature, are not a mass-opportunity system. Even (especially?) in a democratic society they exist to shape a ruling class. And the tension between legacy admissions and affirmative action and merit-based admissions is really a tension between three ways that a ruling class can be legitimated –— through intergenerational continuity, through representation and through aptitude.

The “more meritocracy” argument against both legacies and racial quotas implicitly assumes that aptitude — some elixir of I.Q. and work ethic — is what our elite primarily lacks.

But is that really our upper class’s problem? What if our elite is already diligent and how-do-you-like-them-apples smaht — the average SAT score for the Harvard class of 2022 is a robust 1512 — and deficient primarily in memory and obligation, wisdom and service and patriotism?....

So his argument seems to be let’s not privilege academic merit as such because elites are comprised by more than mere intelligence and it may be the case that by way of legacy admissions and elite class based admissions, US elites will be able to sustain themselves.

....In that case continuity and representation, as embodied by legacy admissions and racial quotas, might actually be better legitimizers for elite universities to cultivate than the spirit of talent-über-alles. 

It might be better if more Ivy League students thought of themselves as representatives of groups and heirs of family obligation than as Promethean Talents elevated by their own amazing native gifts...

And here especially what he says is so fanciful that he loses me

...It might be better if elite universities, in being open about seeking a specific ethnic mix and encouraging an intergenerational tradition, ceded a certain amount of talent to public universities, and even saw their average SAT score go down.

And who knows — the Ivies might even teach undergraduates a little more rigorously if they weren’t so determined to prove they admitted the smartest kids by never ever letting anyone flunk out...

In fact, he says, ...This is all admittedly fanciful... and he says,

....And it might be culturally impossible, given the sway of the meritocratic idea, for elite schools to lean into their aristocratic profile rather than insisting (in whatever defiance of reality) that they are offering opportunity to all....

I see the central flaw in his piece being the assumption that the purpose of elite institutions—referring in this context to universities— is to “shape a ruling class.” He’s putting the cart consequence before the academic horse. 

The purpose of elite schools is, I’d think, to be superior schools, offering the best education they can with the best personnel and most resources to the brightest kids. 

Feeding, shaping, regenerating elites are all the by product of what these schools do in and who attends them or ought to—essentially the smartest students. And sustaining a specific kind of aristocracy, one, say, that  is *not* ....deficient primarily in memory and obligation, wisdom and service and patriotism? remote to the point of non existence in relation to these schools’ main purpose.

In my view, with a true emphasis on the brightest— leave out “best and,” because for the “best” who knows?—“ya picks yer best and ya takes your chances,” and elites will be whatever they turn out to be in the result. 

And I’m not so certain the way out lacks clarity. 


The mess is now such in considerable part because of a hopeless nostalgia for a culture that went out with the Bourbons -- ruling elites and their "noblesse oblige" baggage. I agree this time with Itzik, except that I would be a lot more dismissive of Douthat and his Ancien Regime conservatism. 

Friday, March 8, 2019

Further Words On A Farewell To Arms, Including A Comparison With Romeo And Juliet

R to me on (see immediately below post) my strange comment on a passage in A Farewell To Arms:

Eloquent.  Both the passage and you.  That Hemingway intuitively gets the logic of contracts right suggests that it follows from something deep within us, as does his taking what happened with utter seriousness.  Contrast Celine, who takes the satiric, view that war amounts to people trying to kill him, thus all bets are off (a kind of Hobbesian view) which is also part of Catch 22.  Both of those books are often hilarious, never profound.  



I haven’t read Celine but Heller I did and made mention of it to you.

I knew something terrible was going to happen at the end of this novel. But as I read the final pages I didn’t want it to, terribly much I didn’t want it to. So I agree with those who call the novel a tragedy, which to me, most simply, is the representation of great loss.

I see that Hemingway said he intended this book as his Romeo and Juliet. I can see that in some ways, essentially in the pure, deep love and then death. 

But in a big way not.

In Shakespeare, Romeo’s and Juliet’s deaths, while immediately caused by bizarre error, bizarre bad timing and bizarre coincidence, are ultimately the necessary result of their families’ feud. The feud and their deaths are locked in nexus. The lovers’ fated doom is sealed, and, more, in that dramatic world, metaphysically sealed: they are star crossed. The play’s foreshadowing expresses that structurally. Their death is the wages of their families’ murderous enmity.

In A Farewell To Arms, there’s none of precisely that as such: the war doesn’t cause Catherine’s death: sheer contingency does. Yes, there’s foreshadowing of her death too, but it goes to a different world view, a view of a menacing, arbitrary world that in its menacing, bullying reality will inevitably kill, kill in ways not attributable to human evil. It will kill, as Henry soliloquizes in his head, the kind, the gentle and the good. 

Catherine’s death happens in Switzerland, peaceable, welcoming, civilized, “grand,” non war-torn Switzerland. And in awful irony her and their baby’s deaths come after two harrowing, life affirming, life and death escapes—first Henry’s from the Italian army, then the escape of both of them from Italy to Switzerland—and come in the midst of a loving, devoted life in Switzerland. It all adds a terrifying benign layer of menace to the way things are. 

Such a great, beautiful, moving novel. As you say, “profound,” le mot juste. 

Thursday, March 7, 2019

A Strange Thought About A Passage In A Farewell To Arms

Finished it. It’s a tragedy to be sure, and it’s shattering.

But how about this:

Ch 32, first page: 

...You did not love the floor of a flat-car nor guns with canvas jackets and the smell of vaselined metal or a canvas that rain leaked through, although it is very fine under a canvas and pleasant with guns; but you loved some one else whom now you knew was not even to be pretended there you seeing now very clearly and coldly—not so coldly as clearly and emptily. You saw emptily, lying on your stomach, having been present when one army moved back and another came forward. You had lost your cars and your men as a floorwalker loses the stock of his department in a fire. There was, however, no insurance. You were out of it now. You had no more obligation. If they shot floorwalkers af- ter a fire in the department store because they spoke with an accent they had always had, then certainly the floorwalkers would not be expected to return when the store opened again for business. They might seek other employment; if there was any other employment and the police did not get them....

An interesting thing in this paragraph is how it can be seen from the angle of the law of contract remedies. A party to a contract breached by the other party can sue for damages but can’t treat the contract as ended and thereby be freed of his own contractual obligations. But if the breach is so material as to go to the heart of the contract and so as to amount to a repudiation of it, then the innocent party has an election: 

he can accept the repudiation and treat the contract as an end, sue for damages and be freed of his remaining obligations under it; 

or he can elect to keep the contract alive, sue for damages for the breach but then must keep performing his part of the contract.

In this paragraph, Frederic assesses his ended relation to the Italian army, “You were out of it now. You had no more obligation.” This is after he has escaped the interrogation line, where soldiers are arbitrarily plucked out during the retreat, are charged with desertion, kangaroo court marshalled and shot (as a way fixing blame for the army’s need to retreat.) So, unwittingly I’m sure, Hemingway applies this law of contract remedies to life itself. The floorwalkers will be shot for the store fire only for the irrational reason of their accents, not for any thing wrong they’ve done. The floor walkers did what they were supposed to do on the job. And Henry, an American, with men under his command dead, his vehicles lost, has still done all that it was his duty to do but will be blamed and shot regardless. So the store in causing the floorwalkers to be shot has in the most irrational, terrible and fundamental way, by the threat of death itself, forfeited any obligations they have to it: “...then certainly the floorwalkers would not be expected to return when the store opened again for business.” And so the Italian army has in the most irrational, terrible and fundamental way, by the threat of death itself, forfeited any obligation that Henry has to it. As quoted, he obviously has no more obligation to it.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Some Thoughts Arising From Testimony Of Gerald Butts And Michael Wernick


Gerald Butts’s reason for resigning—that he didn’t want his close friendship with Trudeau to create any perceived conflict for Trudeau in that Trudeau might be thought to be protecting his close friend—on reflection makes scant sense to me. 

In or out of office, he’s Trudeau’s best friend. Invariably, they’ll be seen as supporting each other. How does resignation change that? After all, the issues involve what GB said/did *in office.*



I didn’t really understand it either. Overall looks like he did well in establishing a credible counter argument

One of the conditions for a DPP is that it must be in the public interest. Given that the whole concept is a social/economic override of an otherwise strictly legal determination, it makes sense to me that when it gets booted up to the AG from the Director of Prosecutions, the AG should be consulting her Cabinet colleagues on the public interest

Weaknesses in the government’s case to me revolve around the political fallout in Quebec that was likely really driving them.


My impression of the law is that the economic impact on the country isn’t to be taken into account when a company is charged with the international bribery and corruption charges that SNC is fighting. So whether the DPP’s call was that SNC was simply shut out by the law from DPA availability or whether she in her discretion considering all relevant things decided against that availability, that was her decision disinterestedly to make. And make it she did.

Is it the way it works that the issue then gets “booted up” to the AG or is it that the DPP reports to the AG and the AG reviews the file to ensure or satisfy herself that the DPP has properly exercised her discretion? Even if there’s no difference between these two—though I think there is, but never mind what I think about that, the issue, even as framed as you have it, is a legal one meant for independent prosecutorial determination. 

JWR satisfied herself that the DPP had so properly exercised her discretion. And that should have been the end of it. Neither of them were unaware of the potential consequences to SNC, its employees, stockholders and anyone invested in it. That was all taken into account and a decision was made. There was 0 for the pols to involve themselves in unless JWR initiated a consultation. That’s the notion of prosecutorial independence as I understand it. 

But the legal decision stuck in JT’s craw for a variety of reasons some purely political and some well intentioned. Doesn’t matter. After that the DPP’s say, as affirmed by the AG, is the last say unless something new comes up to be taken into account. And that had to be directed to the DPP and not the AG. In fact SNC continued to make representations, which the DPP dismissed, and now SNC seeks judicial review. 

That’s all as it should be. That’s the legal system in action and the DPP acting independently. JT et al’s continual incursion threatened that independence and ran afoul of Shawcross as I understand the doctrine. 

So no I don’t think, from what I’ve heard and read, that Butts made a credible counter argument. The notion of repeatedly trying to get JWR to override the DPP’s decision because jobs were at stake, among other reasons, when she told JT and Wernick early on that she’d taken her decision, which, as I noted, included taking that consequence into account, was nothing more than an attempt at political interference with prosecutorial independence and thus an attempted assault on the rule of law. 

As I see it.