Hard News by Russell Brown

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Hard News: Limping Onwards

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  • Amy Gale, in reply to giovanni tiso,

    This was one of the starkest US/NZ university contrasts I came across.

    $[X] toward your studies, NZ-style: interview with multi-dignitary panel, health certification, reference verifying that you are of sound moral character.

    $[X] toward your studies, USA-style: they mail you a check.

    tha Ith • Since May 2007 • 451 posts Report Reply

  • Danyl Mclauchlan,

    Danyl, and I would address this to others as well, do you really think it’s okay to insult people just because this is the internet?

    No. I do think (a) it’s okay to insult people when they insult me and (b) this happens more often on the internet, because people aren’t communicating face to face.

    It appears to me that you don’t like what you perceive as “academia” and that you project this across all intellectual activity – if it doesn’t materially progress socio-economic well-being, it shouldn’t be paid for by the state/taxpayer. But the part of that you appear to be missing is the “socio-” bit.

    Well I’ve failed if I’ve given that impression, since I work at a university and I really like it.

    I don’t miss the socio bit – I’ve talked about it quite a lot. But there does have to be an element of utilitarianism somewhere along the way to justify spending the public’s money, given the worthiness of the other things it could be spent on.

    So if asked to justify spending it to teach New Zealand history, say, I’d reply that it is a taonga that is unique to our nation. It doesn’t benefit my back pocket, but a case can be made for it. And Ben makes a good case for philosophy as a means to teach critical thinking and dialectic. (I still find most philosophers totally incomprehensible, in a way that most scientists aren’t, so I am not entirely sold on his point.)

    But a course that teaches, say, Harry Potter and C S Lewis, for people to take because they’re not sure what they want to do with their lives, and justify retrospectively because they like to think it helped them out in some other career, in rather nebulous ways, is not – to my mind – a good way to spend the public wealth. That’s my base case. I don’t think it’s that provocative or unreasonable, and most of the people who do seem to be people with degrees in such courses.

    One last point: a couple of commentators have pointed out that Russell is some kind of rara avis because he can think critically even though he has not been to university! The obvious reply to this is that almost everyone in our society who is intelligent and intellectually curious can go to university, so he’s rare in that respect, not in that he’s somehow, amazingly, stumbled onto the ability to think for himself despite not having attained an undergraduate degree.

    Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 895 posts Report Reply

  • linger,

    almost everyone in our society who is intelligent and intellectually curious can go to university

    I note that this can be true only if the utilitarian argument against public funding is not applied.
    “intellectually curious” implies that courses can and will be chosen on the grounds of interest rather than immediately obvious practical benefit to society.

    most of the people who [see value in Arts courses, and therefore find your view “provocative"] seem to be people with degrees in such courses

    (i) Probably the value of doing (some) Arts subjects – i.e., the analytical training that Megan C. & others have referred to – only becomes apparent by the course’s end (or in some cases, even well after the end of one’s formal education), and isn’t the main reason for students to initially choose such courses. Which makes it very hard to apply the utilitarian argument to those courses as an outsider, without having done them.

    (ii) Can you really not see how doing that would wind Arts graduates up?

    Tokyo • Since Apr 2007 • 854 posts Report Reply

  • Danielle,

    But a course that teaches, say, Harry Potter and C S Lewis, for people to take because they’re not sure what they want to do with their lives, and justify retrospectively because they like to think it helped them out in some other career, in rather nebulous ways, is not – to my mind – a good way to spend the public wealth.

    How, then, do you respond to Megan C's theory that courses you consider 'trivial' may not be useful for their subject matter necessarily, but because they teach analytical thinking and writing?

    Charo World. Cuchi-cuchi!… • Since Nov 2006 • 3623 posts Report Reply

  • Russell Brown, in reply to giovanni tiso,

    When somebody tried to turn it into a reasoned, content-filled conversation, you came back with many more rejoinders of that tenor, dismissing all the propositions that you had no come back for and without actually arguing anything

    I must agree. I’ve enjoyed the actual discussion that Danyl provoked. It has had content.

    Danyl, how exactly do you think people should have responded to your original statement? Because it seems to me that the response was overwhelmingly in good faith, and some of what you’ve said hasn’t been.


    Edit: Actually, that's not good enough on my part. If you say you're arguing in good faith, I accept that and I'm sorry for suggesting otherwise. And I'm sorry if you've felt monstered by the discussion or the gestalt or whatever.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 18509 posts Report Reply

  • Russell Brown, in reply to Danyl Mclauchlan,

    One last point: a couple of commentators have pointed out that Russell is some kind of rara avis because he can think critically even though he has not been to university! The obvious reply to this is that almost everyone in our society who is intelligent and intellectually curious can go to university, so he’s rare in that respect, not in that he’s somehow, amazingly, stumbled onto the ability to think for himself despite not having attained an undergraduate degree.

    I suppose the unusual thing is the extent to which I flock with people who have studied. The spontaneous expressions of fraternal support that happen whenever someone mentions that they're struggling with their PhD thesis here can be quite amusing.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 18509 posts Report Reply

  • Danielle,

    It’s also a nasty online culture – far more so than Kiwiblog, since it’s rather more sophisticated.

    FWIW, PAS is a much "safer" place for women to post than Kiwiblog, and obviously that counts for something pretty significant in my book.

    Charo World. Cuchi-cuchi!… • Since Nov 2006 • 3623 posts Report Reply

  • James Butler, in reply to Danyl Mclauchlan,

    I don’t think it’s that provocative or unreasonable, and most of the people who do seem to be people with degrees in such courses.

    OK, bait taken. I have a mere BSc in Physics, but I have frequently had cause to wish that I had not been so blindly science-focussed as a teenager. For one thing, I have only written one essay since high school, so my analytical writing skills have atrophied; more tellingly, I find it very difficult to *read* critically, not only to unpack the meaning the author intended, but (especially when reading journalism and blogs) to place authorial claims in a context where I can evaluate them for reasonableness, verifiability etc..

    Its fair to say that many people have a knack for this without needing to be trained in it; it might also be that I am unusually dense in some respect. But it’s certainly not something you can get just by reading – I like to think I read pretty widely, but it doesn’t help much if one can’t read deeply. Looking back I think that some of my high-school teachers were trying to show me this, but I didn’t listen, to my cost.

    And I value this about PAS – that I feel I can (occasionally) participate in a discourse which is not otherwise open to me. It’s a useful intersection of technical culture (in which I am very comfortable) and, erm, cultural culture (which I’m desperate to understand).

    ETA: The utilitarian part of this, I should add, is that a populace which is better able to evaluate information and engage in rational debate is - I naively imagine - a populace more able to peacefully and effectively govern itself. But maybe I'm wrong, I don't have a degree in this kind of thing.

    Auckland • Since Jan 2009 • 799 posts Report Reply

  • DeepRed, in reply to Russell Brown,

    I suppose the unusual thing is the extent to which I flock with people who have studied. The spontaneous expressions of fraternal support that happen whenever someone mentions that they're struggling with their PhD thesis here can be quite amusing.

    For the most part, that's true. I didn't solidify any true friendships until I attended university.

    On the other hand, there are those who graduated, but blatantly tap into the worst possible anti-intellectual vein. Like Rob Muldoon.

    The southernmost capital … • Since Nov 2006 • 4058 posts Report Reply

  • Russell Brown, in reply to Danielle,

    FWIW, PAS is a much “safer” place for women to post than Kiwiblog, and obviously that counts for something pretty significant in my book.

    That's always been a keynote for me. You get a better environment when you pay attention to the women.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 18509 posts Report Reply

  • Danielle,

    You get a better environment when you pay attention to the women.

    Because we're so inherently caring and nurturing, of course.

    (I'm surprised I managed to get that joke out without hurling slightly.)

    Charo World. Cuchi-cuchi!… • Since Nov 2006 • 3623 posts Report Reply

  • Russell Brown, in reply to Danielle,

    Because we’re so inherently caring and nurturing, of course.

    Nah. Because you're all bitchy and cliquish and that sort of turns me on.

    Oops. I just made myself lol.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 18509 posts Report Reply

  • linger,

    If you prefer –
    If you don’t pay attention to including a range of contributors with different life experiences, including teh wimmenz, you quickly get a worse environment.
    (I.e., a community biassed towards people who don’t care whether they’re included. Sound familiar?)
    so: no need to appeal to any generalisations about inherent qualities.
    possibly also no need for me to make this point explicit.

    Tokyo • Since Apr 2007 • 854 posts Report Reply

  • recordari, in reply to Danielle,

    (I'm surprised I managed to get that joke out without hurling slightly.)

    What joke?

    But seriously, as recently as 3 months ago the people here seemed largely cool, and entirely scary. Then I met a bunch of you and you seem entirely cool, and not really that scary at all.

    But then I've always been a little naive. And just a note, if it weren't for the women here, I probably wouldn't be here at all. No offence to all you lovely men. It's just... no there really is no safe way to explain that.

    Oops. I just made myself lol.

    ETA: Can I quote Meatloaf? 'You took the words...' forget it.

    AUCKLAND • Since Dec 2009 • 2607 posts Report Reply

  • giovanni tiso, in reply to Danyl Mclauchlan,

    One last point: a couple of commentators have pointed out that Russell is some kind of rara avis because he can think critically even though he has not been to university! The obvious reply to this is that almost everyone in our society who is intelligent and intellectually curious can go to university, so he’s rare in that respect, not in that he’s somehow, amazingly, stumbled onto the ability to think for himself despite not having attained an undergraduate degree.

    And history is full of self-taught engineers and scientists (close to these shores, let's say Bruce McLaren), which doesn't devalue technical and scientific degrees either. Formal education isn't the only education there is, and at their worst university courses can have the sole value of validating what you already know. It's certainly wasn't the case for me, but you may think that doesn't matter a jot.

    It's also worth noting that I know more than one trained scientist who ended up working in other fields. I'd argue that their degree wasn't any more of a waste than yours.

    How, then, do you respond to Megan C's theory that courses you consider 'trivial' may not be useful for their subject matter necessarily, but because they teach analytical thinking and writing?

    I wouldn't stay up too late waiting for an answer to that one.

    Wellington • Since Jun 2007 • 7320 posts Report Reply

  • HORansome, in reply to Danyl Mclauchlan,

    But a course that teaches, say, Harry Potter and C S Lewis, for people to take because they’re not sure what they want to do with their lives, and justify retrospectively because they like to think it helped them out in some other career, in rather nebulous ways, is not – to my mind – a good way to spend the public wealth.

    I think the problem with this view you are expressing is that, as the research shows, people who train in practical and useful degrees don't necessarily go off to be useful and productive members of society and quite a few people who train in philosophy don't go off to be useless wastrels who suck at the public purse until such time that they are dead.

    We just don't know what people are going to do with their degrees, so any argument which says "We should justify spending money on faculty x or department y" needs to take that into account. Lots of physicists become database managers, lots of philosophy majors become documentarians, lots of economists become owners of failed businesses.

    Saying something like "We can only justify funding degrees with clear and beneficial outcomes to society" is silly (which is why I suspect you're only expressing this kind of sentiment rather than asserting it); we've had successive governments try that approach and it doesn't work because a) we don't know which subjects people can take at university that will actually lead to such outcomes and b) we do know that a lot of people who train in such subjects then go off and don't use them, reducing the supposed utility of their degrees[1].

    There is a lot of things that are wrong with our tertiary education system; Law degrees and Med degrees really should be post-graduate degrees, for example, but, for the time being, we still have a breadth of study options in most of our local universities which makes people (not just academics) jealous. In the States and the UK they are shutting down the so-called "useless" subjects and it's not just people with Arts degrees who are complaining.

    1. There's an obvious rejoinder here, which is that the degree could end up being useful to in some other way, but Danyl has ruled that by saying:

    and justify retrospectively because they like to think it helped them out in some other career, in rather nebulous ways,

    Tāmaki Makaurau • Since Sep 2008 • 401 posts Report Reply

  • linger, in reply to HORansome,

    As I’ve already suggested, in some cases the value may only be obvious retrospectively.

    Danyl’s point may be that such a system is not inherently ineffective, but it is inefficient (in that students won’t know in advance whether a particular course will lead them to the mental-training benefits eventually realised by some graduates).

    But, as you note, selective funding of courses according to subject matter is not a way to improve efficiency in attaining an education (rather than merely a degree).

    Tokyo • Since Apr 2007 • 854 posts Report Reply

  • Danielle,

    nebulous ways

    Oh yeah. I meant to note that merely because you can't quantify the benefit in some sort of bean-counting fashion, that doesn't mean it isn't there.

    Charo World. Cuchi-cuchi!… • Since Nov 2006 • 3623 posts Report Reply

  • Rob Stowell,

    But a course that teaches, say, Harry Potter and C S Lewis, for people to take because they’re not sure what they want to do with their lives, and justify retrospectively because they like to think it helped them out in some other career, in rather nebulous ways, is not – to my mind – a good way to spend the public wealth.

    How, then, do you respond to Megan C’s theory that courses you consider ‘trivial’ may not be useful for their subject matter necessarily, but because they teach analytical thinking and writing

    I just disagree more-or-less completely with premises that include measures of the 'utility' of study to be primarily simplistically economic or immediately practical. I think understanding the world has its own value; and other people deepening their understanding of the world has a social value, to me, as well as to them.
    I understand some people think the varieties, vagaries and mysteries of human culture are less worthy of understanding than those of streptococci or gravity. But that seems just as self-evidently wrong to me as Danyl finds it self-evidently correct.
    Is it trivial to study the reasons an engaging, moderately well-written saga about teenage magicians fighting The-Forces-Of-Evil has dominated our children's cultural lives (and made JK the world's wealthiest woman)?
    Does understanding that tell us nothing about who we are, what we are, and how we are? Me- I think it could tell us quite a lot.

    Whakaraupo • Since Nov 2006 • 1434 posts Report Reply

  • giovanni tiso, in reply to Rob Stowell,

    Does understanding that tell us nothing about who we are, what we are, and how we are? Me- I think it could tell us quite a lot.

    But even if it didn't, it's just incorrect (and quite possibly dishonest) to claim that what a university course on Rowling would achieve is just get you to read the books. You'd also have to study them and write about them critically and analytically, hopefully in connection with other aspects of the culture. Those are valuable skills that you don't just get by reading during your commute. You need them in all sorts of professions.

    Wellington • Since Jun 2007 • 7320 posts Report Reply

  • BenWilson,

    My feeling all along in this debate is that your last post [edit: Danyls attack on the PAS culture] was the entire reason for the last 8 pages of this thread. You deliberately picked something you knew was against the "gestalt consensus", scorned it, and waited to see where that would lead for several days. Eventually someone bored decided to have a go, a few more people chimed in, and you reappeared with more scorn. Yes, you have been insulted in a number of ways since then.

    Is this really the debate you want to have, that you've been angling for for months? That the polite culture of PAS can harm robust debate? Be honest now, no polite tricky games, or that makes you a hypocrite.

    It's a much better debate, I think, than "what is the value of the humanities?", and is in some ways appropriate to it too, since similar questions can be asked of academic politeness - does that harm those disciplines some?

    A useful preparatory experiment for anyone wanting this debate would be to consider the times on this site that you have held a reasonably strong opinion against the consensus. What happened? Did you say what you thought or hold your tongue? If you held your tongue, how did that make you feel? If you didn't, what happened? How did that make you feel?

    For myself, the last major time that it happened was during the discussions around the anti-smacking law changes. I felt quite strongly at the time that it was a very foolish move by Labour, and did enormous damage to what I perceived as their general cause. It tore the solidarity of the Left apart. It smacked of major hubris, and the party not giving a flying shit what the population really wanted, just doing what they felt was right. Doing, in fact, exactly what I fear National will be doing next term.

    I don't really want to have the debate again, I'm just saying how I felt about it. But what I do want to talk about is how debating the subject here made me feel. There are many elements of it that strike a chord with feelings emanating from Danyl. Essentially I felt isolated and disrespected, and I simply disappeared from here for about 6 months, no flouncing, just gone. It was quite a major bumout, since I had a developed a lot of interest in, and respect for the regulars here. It was not my only bumout at the time, either.

    But during that 6 months I had time to consider the extent to which the way I felt had resulted from the way I had acted. My debating style originates mostly from formal debating, in which rhetoric and insult actually take quite a large part, and also the Socratic method, which is actually quite a disingenuous process if used to argue with people (although it is quite good for teaching people). Also my ongoing fondness for Popper meant that I believed in the "bold claim" method, which pretty much means "taking a stab in the dark" a lot of the time. Popper would most likely be pretty angry with me to distill it so, nothing worse than seeing someone taking a good idea and using it badly.

    I figured in the end that half the problem was the internet in the way, that if I was going to reengage with PAS, I would have to meet the people, to display good faith by my actual presence, and to discuss personal matters that I had never even raised before, in order to contextualize myself for people. It was a valuable experience, and I kicked myself for not having done it years earlier, for having maintained deliberate aloofness out of mostly erroneous opinions on the purity of my rational discourse.

    Having gone through this, though, I now do find it a lot harder to raise robust disagreement. Essentially, I don't want to hurt people that I consider to be friends, where in the past I would often not give a crap if what I said hurt (viz, the awful debate on obesity). So to disagree involves a lot more preparation and care, and in many cases that just means it never happens, it's too hard, and I don't have the time.

    I could go on, but I seem to have hit the PAS word limit! Right ... um ... yeah .... somewhere near here ... here!

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 8305 posts Report Reply

  • Megan Clayton, in reply to Rob Stowell,

    One of the things that contributes, I think, to wider scepticism about the humanities in addition to the arguments about benefit and utility which have been the focus here is the way in which the teaching of it has changed so much over time . Many people have I think the idea that literary studies is an overstewed blend of Great Works cut down by postmodernism, and little else.

    For myself, I find the contention that the works of popular and high culture are worthy of serious consideration in a manner other than straightforward consumption (the latter of which I take to include buying, reading, writing fan-fiction, going to literary festivals and so on), and that wider society benefits from this, far less problematic than the older, Leavisian notion that the teaching of literature exists to win a Gnostic-style understanding of a Great Tradition that contains insight into a national character. Yet for many people, the funding of the first seems a far more problematic proposition than the second.

    Christchurch • Since Feb 2007 • 50 posts Report Reply

  • Danyl Mclauchlan,

    FWIW, PAS is a much "safer" place for women to post than Kiwiblog, and obviously that counts for something pretty significant in my book.

    That is valuable, and it's something guys like me can occasionally lose sight of. But if someone logs onto Kiwiblog and disagrees with DPF about something they're going to get a lot of criticism hurled their way, but it's a pretty diverse community and they're also going to get a lot of supporting comments and endorsement, whereas at PAS the general tendency is for a dissenting voice to get absolutely buried with abuse. Once again, not a huge issue for me until people accuse me of being a dick when I respond to it.

    How, then, do you respond to Megan C's theory that courses you consider 'trivial' may not be useful for their subject matter necessarily, but because they teach analytical thinking and writing?

    Well that's easy. You can teach people analytic thinking and reasoning skills without exposing them to subject matter that is trivial, or that they can effortlessly aquire on their own. You don't have to 'study' Harry Potter - you can go do an LLB.

    Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 895 posts Report Reply

  • James Butler,

    Also, is it redundant to add that you don't need to have a Humanities education in order to benefit from a Humanities education? Teachers would be the obvious example - not only do I want my children to have high-school English teachers who have studied literature, but I want them to have primary teachers who have a real grasp of analytical reading and thinking. You might imagine that people who want to be teachers would have that already - most I know do, but I have known counterexamples, and I imagine teacher training needs to foster this.

    If the cost of maintaining the academic critical mass necessary for these subjects to continue to be studied is some hypothetical number of students who take "easy" humanities papers "just for interest" and somehow don't benefit from the experience, then so be it.

    Auckland • Since Jan 2009 • 799 posts Report Reply

  • Russell Brown, in reply to BenWilson,

    So to disagree involves a lot more preparation and care, and in many cases that just means it never happens, it’s too hard, and I don’t have the time.

    The way I see it is that I can have a raging argument with Craig or Gio without losing sight of the fact that we're friends. It's just a discussion thread, there'll be another one tomorrow.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 18509 posts Report Reply

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