Hard News by Russell Brown

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Hard News: Limping Onwards

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  • richard, in reply to linger,

    I can almost guarantee that the Karenina reference must have been something like “Stars all pretty much behave the same way during their time on the main sequence, but different star types each go wrong in their own way”.

    [And Richard’s followup confirms this.]

    Nice try, but no. (Well correct in format, but not in content.) Anyone else want a go??

    Actually, at this I am just procrastinating my actual writing -- but a search on google for my full name and "tolstoy" gets the slides from a talk I gave a couple of years ago as the first hit.

    Not looking for New Engla… • Since Nov 2006 • 258 posts Report Reply

  • Danyl Mclauchlan,

    Just taking the thread even further off-topic for a second, apparently Nabakov once set an essay question in the exam for his Russian literature paper at Princeton: list the contents of Anna Karenina's handbag. (This information is not given in the text.)

    Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 899 posts Report Reply

  • giovanni tiso, in reply to Jolisa,

    ...Russell Brown, Giovanni Tiso...

    Eh, sorry, what? I might have swooned there for a minute.

    A strong focus on arts in secondary school and access to public libraries is going to do a lot more for the intellectual dynamism of the whole country across classes than subsidising the children of the privileged to study Roland Barthes.

    So long as you stop just before you get to Barthes, eh? You wouldn't want those underprivileged kids to learn things above their station.

    By the way, if you think I'm personally a child of the privileged... but to hell with that, I'm done with your baiting twatcockery. I'll yield the floor to Bill Sutch, writing on education, privilege and the country's stock of public intellectuals in 1966:

    In 1965 a march of students to Parliament secured more adequate bursary allowances and forced the government to pay more attention to student accommodation. These facts alone indicate that a system of free education and equal opportunity did not operate at the university level, and probably also that the lower income groups had not made the subject a political issue. In 1966 a much higher proportion of the children of the professional classes and of the affluent were at the universities than of lower income groups. This fact partly explains why the university is a much more conservative body than the New Zealand average and perhaps why New Zealand is usually so moribund in the areas where professional expertise and social imagination are required. [...]

    There is a fissure in New Zealand society. There are children of the well-to-do who go through the primary and secondary private schools and do not mix at school with the children from other classes, and are diminished thereby, for in associating with their kind at the university and later in commercial, professional, or sheep farming life, they are deprived of some of the moral qualities New Zealand's egalitarian society offers. They are not an elite; they do not provide imagination nor much leadership, though they are often in positions requiring economic and social judgments. But, in setting social patterns, they do have more money than the average. They get tax exemption to help pay for their youngsters to have smaller classes at private schools and they are, as a group, not very interested in improving state education by, for example, reducing the size of classes by paying more taxes. If they were, radical improvement in education might have been of urgent importance to the National Party; New Zealand might have had a higher school-leaving age, a much longer period of training for its teachers, more specialist tertiary institutions, a better secondary curriculum, and much smaller classes.

    W.B. Sutch, The Quest for Security in New Zealand, 1940 to 1966 (Wellington: Oxford University Press, 1966), pp. 276-279

    Elsewhere he rails against the vocational, utilitarian approach to funding public education but I don't have the quotation to hand unfortunately.

    Wellington • Since Jun 2007 • 7348 posts Report Reply

  • richard, in reply to Danyl Mclauchlan,

    Nabakov once set an essay question in the exam for his Russian literature paper at Princeton: list the contents of Anna Karenina’s handbag. (This information is not given in the text.)

    More likely Cornell or Wellesley, if it happened at all.

    Not looking for New Engla… • Since Nov 2006 • 258 posts Report Reply

  • Danyl Mclauchlan,

    You also don't need it to read Law and Medicine books. Why aren't our buses full of people poring over those things, then just slipping in to ace the exams at the end? Because actually when you study things with rigor you need help.

    Medicine: pretty obvious. Law (and others) : the qualification is evidence of your ability to to a job. Arts: the qualification is evidence that you read a number of books.

    Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 899 posts Report Reply

  • Megan Clayton,

    My experience has been that when there is a general conversation about the value of the humanities, there is often a conflation between the content that is studied (and the knowledge we assume students gain about that content) and the skills that are developed as a result of studying that content. I agree that it's hard to make an argument justifying the funding of the study of, say, Middlemarch if the perceived outcome is solely that the student knows more about that novel.

    I would say however that one of the aims of teaching and studying the humanities in general is that students learn how to think and write in manners more clear and on matters more complex than can be achieved in other contexts - including, to take Danyl's example, reading literature or philosophy for interest and entertainment. These skills are highly portable into sectors both public and private and in workplace situations of many kinds. While these skills can certainly be gained in the context of other kinds of study, they are not its principal product in the way they are with the humanities nor, I believe, will students have had the same concentrated education in reflecting on the style and composition of their prose arguments as things in themselves.

    The density of academic prose in the humanities (a style of which I am no special fan, despite having been schooled in it in the previous century) is just one style. A well-tempered graduate ought to be able to turn their hand to more than this, and the majority do. The number of humanities graduates who go on to academic employment is tiny. Most do other things, and I believe that if the universities teach them effectively (which again, I think in general they do), they these graduates do these things well.

    I'm not offended or affronted by the raising of these kinds of questions. A portion of my work is as a union representative through which I get to hear university managers and the governments who fund them ask versions of such questions most weeks, and sometimes most days. I think that current and future disciplines and professions will continue to need writers who can work swiftly to deadline and communicate persuasively on matters of all kinds, and I believe that these skills are most effectively and widely produced by study in the humanities - the three-year arts degree. This is a separate argument from the argument about the value of the content of the humanities, and we do well I think not to conflate them.

    Christchurch • Since Feb 2007 • 50 posts Report Reply

  • Russell Brown, in reply to giovanni tiso,

    …Russell Brown, Giovanni Tiso…

    Eh, sorry, what? I might have swooned there for a minute.

    I'd have mentioned you too, but I was afraid you'd fall and hit your head.

    Something we've danced around at various times is the quality of writing summoned by critical studies. As an inexpert reader, I frequently find it unbearable -- and the idea of deliberate obscurantism somewhat offensive. But you write beautifully.

    For the Great New Zealand Argument book (copies still available!), I think whatI brought to it was a journalistic eye. I read quite a number of Auckland University Winter Lectures and Sinclair's 'The Historian as Prophet' stood clear of nearly everything else. It is lucid, relevant and, yes, prophetical. By contrast, Allen Curnow's poetic economy was nowhere to be found in his lectures.

    As I've noted before, I'm a fan of A.R.D Fairburn -- he wrote a lot of tosh, but even then it was brilliantly-expressed tosh. It fascinates me that he was brought into the faculty at Auckland University without having done the conventional study. Those responsible presumably recognised that he could still be a valuable contributor.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 18663 posts Report Reply

  • BenWilson,

    I had a very amusing discussion just last week with an American colleague. We have been working on the same project together for several months now, and I've been gradually pushed forward as the team leader, having at some point seized the initiative by taking a long view of what we were doing, seeing it wasn't progressing, and talking the 5 people who had set the whole thing up around to doing it a different way, which, once started, they all enthused about and took and ran and huge progress has been made, and the project is nearly finished.

    In this discussion, it came up that neither of us was actually trained for what we decided to do in the end. I joked "I bet you never thought when you left college that you'd become a specialist in the SMTP protocol, and protocol design in general". He just laughed and told me his training was actually in rocket science. Quite literally, he was a rocket scientist. "Why did you change?" I asked. "It was really boring, the whole job is filling out reports". He laughed even harder when I said my degree was actually in Philosophy. Not because he was disparaging it, but because it rang true to him that the more general aspects of our respective educations had been some of the most valuable things we'd ever learned.

    Highly technical training hardly needs training these days. Everything is about looking things up, with a modicum of testing the ideas against our deeper understandings of the subject matter. The important choices we make are almost all highly abstract, drawing upon critical thinking, articulacy, and particularly an ability to see when people are basing their thinking on dogmatic positions. I believe that philosophy taught me more about how to see these things than anything I learned in the 4 years of computer science I studied, and experience with a lot of the other computer science majors did a lot to confirm this - most of them totally lacked any initiative when it came to job seeking, or what they did in their jobs, because they had never learned to challenge the thinking handed down to them from above.

    In my first job, my boss was quite explicit about why he'd hired me. Despite it being a job in a software house, he said it was the fact that I had been a champion debater that sold him. They were desperately in need of someone who could take on senior management and win them around to the merits of our rather strange product. Never did a boss make a better bet, my extended work for them in Australia saved the company from bankruptcy - the boss was pretty clear about that, and very dark about it when I resigned to chase better money over there.

    Curiously, they had previously employed a PhD in computer science to do what I was doing, the amazing kudos that was supposed to bring was envisaged to be a real draw card to the people they were convincing. But it was a spectacular failure because the guy was hopeless, utterly hopeless at explaining anything. Furthermore his colossal ego resulting from his extended training was part of the reason they were nearly bankrupt - he demanded to be paid more than directors were paying themselves. This ego also meant he could never brook any criticism of his system, which was actually total shit, and would have wasted millions of customer dollars if they just put it in, the way he advised.

    So you have to excuse me for not really buying into the genius and natural authority of the highly technically trained. Science is not at all immune to setting up dogmas and political factions and excluding alternative thinking. And I'm damned sure that Law isn't.

    I do sort of agree that becoming extremely highly trained in the Arts might converge on this sort of thing, though. If your only background is studying politics, you're not well-rounded either. I have examples of this amongst my friends, one of whom boasted to me that Das Kapital was nearly the only book he bothered to read at University, and it could be applied to everything he studied. He was cross with me when I suggested that he'd squandered his general education completely, in that case.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 8305 posts Report Reply

  • Danyl Mclauchlan,

    So long as you stop just before you get to Barthes, eh? You wouldn't want those underprivileged kids to learn things above their station.

    Another few pages of this thread and my eye muscles will develop repetitive strain injury.

    Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 899 posts Report Reply

  • linger, in reply to Danyl Mclauchlan,

    Arts: the qualification is evidence that you read a number of books.

    That is oversimplifying to the point of reductio ad absurdum.
    In Arts, the qualification should be evidence that you have read a number of books, and understood enough of their contents to be able to synthesise, use, and critique a specialised framework of analysis.

    Tokyo • Since Apr 2007 • 872 posts Report Reply

  • Megan Clayton, in reply to BenWilson,

    Quite literally, he was a rocket scientist. “Why did you change?” I asked. “It was really boring, the whole job is filling out reports”. He laughed even harder when I said my degree was actually in Philosophy.

    Many people seem to take an arts graduate working in fields significantly different from what the graduate studied as a sign that the person's degree is irrelevant or that that person studied in the wrong field. I take the view that someone working in a field far removed from their original studies is not a sign of the failure of that discipline's usefulness; it's a sign of success.

    Christchurch • Since Feb 2007 • 50 posts Report Reply

  • Danyl Mclauchlan,

    @Ben - I don't think it's the training that poisons some computer scientists like that. Many of them are broken going into first year. It's a subset of the type attracted to the discipline: intellectually brilliant, arrogant, utterly incapable of interacting with other humans. You meet people like that in biology - and in other fields too, I guess - but very rarely, compared with the high incidence of that personality type in compsci.

    Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 899 posts Report Reply

  • BenWilson, in reply to Danyl Mclauchlan,

    Medicine: pretty obvious

    Then it won't take you a minute to explain why Grey's Anatomy isn't in the hands of every underprivileged commuter in the country.

    Law (and others) : the qualification is evidence of your ability to to a job.

    A job that comes down to reading a lot of cases and judgments, and knowing the law? Everyone could get themselves a piece of that at the library, or on the internet, who needs a whole school for that?

    Arts: the qualification is evidence that you read a number of books.

    Actually, Danyl, I didn't read a lot of books at all. What I did mostly was engage in dialectic, much like what we are doing right here. It is something that you can only learn by doing it, and that's not going to happen on the bus unless you're on a bus full of philosophers who are prepared to give you their time on it.

    Through most of my life since then I've encountered technician after technician who has disparaged my Arts background, and yet found themselves strangely compelled to continue explaining their subject to me, and have admitted later on that they learned a lot from the process about their own subject, that it was actually a very good way of learning. Finance majors have been my bitches for years. They're seldom aware of quite how dogmatically they are trained.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 8305 posts Report Reply

  • Megan Clayton, in reply to Danyl Mclauchlan,

    Medicine: pretty obvious. Law (and others) : the qualification is evidence of your ability to to a job. Arts: the qualification is evidence that you read a number of books.

    Isn't this in some regard linked to the historical - and ongoing - tension between professional and general studies in the academy more generally? My impression has been that government - and to an extent, university management - tends to be far more attracted to funding professional qualifications precisely because of the "pretty obvious" factor that you cite. Where you and I differ I suspect is in the matter of whether value inheres in the arts in the way that it does in the research sciences, but I'm not convinced that students and management don't regard undergraduate science as a generalist's degree (albeit one that's culturally higher in status) in the way they do the arts.

    Christchurch • Since Feb 2007 • 50 posts Report Reply

  • richard, in reply to BenWilson,

    Ben, I am amused to see another person whose current profession likely qualifies them for public support in Danyl's world putting their hand up for the direct and personal benefits they obtained from the formal study of philosophy :-)

    Not looking for New Engla… • Since Nov 2006 • 258 posts Report Reply

  • Danyl Mclauchlan,

    Then it won't take you a minute to explain why Grey's Anatomy isn't in the hands of every underprivileged commuter in the country.

    It's too big.

    Everyone could get themselves a piece of that at the library, or on the internet, who needs a whole school for that?

    You really want me to explain the premise behind professional qualifications to you? Really?

    Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 899 posts Report Reply

  • BenWilson, in reply to Danyl Mclauchlan,

    It's a subset of the type attracted to the discipline: intellectually brilliant, arrogant, utterly incapable of interacting with other humans.

    Yes, autism is rife, but the recommended therapy for autism is not to reduce the range over which the person's mind operates. I say this from personal experience.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 8305 posts Report Reply

  • Jolisa, in reply to Megan Clayton,

    I take the view that someone working in a field far removed from their original studies is not a sign of the failure of that discipline’s usefulness; it’s a sign of success.

    Nothing to add to this; it's brilliant.

    Auckland, NZ • Since Nov 2006 • 1410 posts Report Reply

  • BenWilson, in reply to Danyl Mclauchlan,

    It's too big.

    Nah, it's smaller than the last Harry Potter novel, which I have seen several times on buses.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 8305 posts Report Reply

  • giovanni tiso, in reply to Russell Brown,

    Something we've danced around at various times is the quality of writing summoned by critical studies. As an inexpert reader, I frequently find it unbearable -- and the idea of deliberate obscurantism somewhat offensive.

    I presume you have read mostly texts that weren’t aimed at a narrow specialist readership, in which case I can’t say that I blame you – I get a bit frustrated at times myself. It’s a discipline that is essentially useless unless it learns to communicate with the outside, which is occasionally and very lamentably afraid to do, possibly because the conversation so often devolves into having to justify your very existence. But that's no excuse really.

    On this point I recall being somewhat apprehensive before a government scholarship interview, anticipating that the person from Federated Farmers on the panel might give me a bit of a hard time. As a matter of fact, he asked a perfectly sensible question that I was grateful for and able to answer in plain English. Right after I swallowed that particular prejudice with the help of a large glass of water.

    Wellington • Since Jun 2007 • 7348 posts Report Reply

  • Megan Clayton, in reply to giovanni tiso,

    On this point I recall being somewhat apprehensive before a government scholarship interview, anticipating that the person from Federated Farmers on the panel might give me a bit of a hard time. As a matter of fact, he asked a perfectly sensible question that I was grateful for and able to answer in plain English.

    Ditto my experience - very likely I suspect with the same scholarship interview and perhaps the same panellist. It was at the question "where do you see yourself in ten years time?" that I balked. I'd been close-annotating the poems of Robin Hyde for months and the only thing that came to mind was "not dead, I hope".

    Christchurch • Since Feb 2007 • 50 posts Report Reply

  • Russell Brown, in reply to BenWilson,

    Actually, Danyl, I didn’t read a lot of books at all. What I did mostly was engage in dialectic, much like what we are doing right here. It is something that you can only learn by doing it, and that’s not going to happen on the bus unless you’re on a bus full of philosophers who are prepared to give you their time on it.

    Good point. I learned to argue by ... arguing with people.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 18663 posts Report Reply

  • Danyl Mclauchlan,

    Nah, it's smaller than the last Harry Potter novel, which I have seen several times on buses.

    Those poor people, reading Rowling on the bus instead of paying for a Professor to teach them how to analyse it within a critical framework.

    Actually, Danyl, I didn’t read a lot of books at all. What I did mostly was engage in dialectic, much like what we are doing right here. It is something that you can only learn by doing it, and that’s not going to happen on the bus unless you’re on a bus full of philosophers who are prepared to give you their time on it.

    If only there were some other venue for discussion and debate about, well - subjects like this! - other than a university classroom.

    Wellington • Since Nov 2006 • 899 posts Report Reply

  • Sacha, in reply to BenWilson,

    Finance majors have been my bitches for years. They're seldom aware of quite how dogmatically they are trained.

    Nice

    Ak • Since May 2008 • 16436 posts Report Reply

  • BenWilson, in reply to richard,

    Ben, I am amused to see another person whose current profession likely qualifies them for public support in Danyl's world putting their hand up for the direct and personal benefits they obtained from the formal study of philosophy

    Like I said before, I'm not entirely sure if Danyl's heart is really in this discussion, considering what a widely educated person he is himself. Philosophy used to be the only subject taught at University, and that was when it was something only the most gifted or wealthy people were allowed to do. There was a reason it entrenched privilege - it was extremely useful training for public life for those people. That it is not restricted only to the wealthy is one of the best things that's happened in the education, ever.

    I will say this for his point though (and I'm wary of speaking for Danyl, he's a big boy), that if I had studied nothing but Philosophy, I might wholeheartedly agree with him. But just as Science faculties require general studies, so the Arts faculties also allow study outside the faculty, and there are many new streams that specialize in various combined branches. I'd have been bloody stoked if the streamed options existed when I was studying, that let one study both Artificial Intelligence AND Philosophy as complementary disciplines. I'm envious of the options kids have, and sure they will surpass me in every way. At least I hope so, and I want a wide variety of available funded education to be available to maximize the chances of it.

    anticipating that the person from Federated Farmers on the panel might give me a bit of a hard time.

    I'd rate one of the best outcomes of a general degree was that I was able to explain and sell Artificial Intelligence solutions to farmers. Never underestimate what the common person can understand, if you can only take the time to put it in their words. Also, I've never been so schooled in my own arrogance as by what I learned from the amazing people who used to drive trucks, and then learned to schedule them.

    Those poor people, reading Rowling on the bus instead of paying for a Professor to teach them how to analyse it within a critical framework.

    OK, now I know you're just taking the piss.

    Good point. I learned to argue by ... arguing with people.

    And you're ironically the very person Danyl is describing, the self taught savant. Fantastic when it happens, but aren't you rather unusual? Danyl has already admitted to not practicing what he preaches.

    Auckland • Since Nov 2006 • 8305 posts Report Reply

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