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Sunday, July 06, 2008

As For Respect For Intellectuals...

Anonymous commenter on the last post:
"...France is a country that has great public admirations for intellectuals - unlike the USA."

Certainly I cannot speak for all Americans. However I was raised to revere learning, honesty, skill, craft, faithfulness and character. When intellectuals are blind to faithfulness, honesty and craft, they become toxic as all get out.

Remember, the Nazis had their easiest corruptions of societal institutions in the universities and guild professions, including medicine!

A few days ago Shrinkwrapped posted about elite US educational institutions, and quoted an article questioning the, ah, comprehensiveness of an elite US education. That article begins:
It didn’t dawn on me that there might be a few holes in my education until I was about 35. I’d just bought a house, the pipes needed fixing, and the plumber was standing in my kitchen. There he was, a short, beefy guy with a goatee and a Red Sox cap and a thick Boston accent, and I suddenly learned that I didn’t have the slightest idea what to say to someone like him. So alien was his experience to me, so unguessable his values, so mysterious his very language, that I couldn’t succeed in engaging him in a few minutes of small talk before he got down to work. Fourteen years of higher education and a handful of Ivy League dees, and there I was, stiff and stupid, struck dumb by my own dumbness. “Ivy retardation,” a friend of mine calls this. I could carry on conversations with people from other countries, in other languages, but I couldn’t talk to the man who was standing in my own house.
Well, this is a deficit of culture rather than education, because anyone who can't talk to a plumber is a person who thinks a plumber is not human as he understands the term. We'll grant the author character for understanding that this is a problem, but not enough character to comprehend his obvious commonality with the plumber standing in his kitchen.

I strongly recommending the whole article, because it goes right to the heart of the debate over Obama. I have deliberately not given the author's name, because this might as well be Obama speaking:
Since the idea of the intellectual emerged in the 18th century, it has had, at its core, a commitment to social transformation. Being an intellectual means thinking your way toward a vision of the good society and then trying to realize that vision by speaking truth to power. It means going into spiritual exile. It means foreswearing your allegiance, in lonely freedom, to God, to country, and to Yale. It takes more than just intellect; it takes imagination and courage.
Read it, and see what you think.

"I was given the unmistakable message that such people were beneath me."

I have friends who were planning to marry. He was from working-class Brooklyn, now living and working in Santa Fe. She was Boston born and raised; attended MIT, and had lived her whole life in the Boston area.

They were at a Starbuck's in Santa Fe. As he was paying for the coffee, he was chatting with the barista and the conversation continued for a few moments. She got very angry, and after they walked away, asked: "Why would you talk to a person like that?"

She's a snob, purely and instinctively. She can't conceive that a service worker could be worthy of anything more than commands. Santa Fe is one of the most charming towns, and she hated it--because it wasn't Boston.

They didn't marry; the breakup was nasty. Good thing; the divorce could have been deadly.
Having been asked to pursue my academic career from an number of these institutions I was like a bad flashback. For the ligher side of the darker side I recommend barackula.com
I shall now unmask myself as a male chauvinist pig...

I note that it's mostly women who have these hangups about class. Guys have had to deal with all sorts - even us nerds have to - of men of different backgrounds and classes. Especially true in sports (look how racially mixed professional sports are) and business.

You have to be able to chat with the electrician while he runs a T100 line to your desk. Makes the job go smoother and faster.

Women on the other hand are more concerned with hierarchy and who does what to whom and who is getting more of (fill in the blank). It can be a mess if you have to calm them down and get things running again.

You may fire the first shot at twenty paces, ladies...

Good Ole Charlie

PS: Who can't seem to handle Google/Blogger with half the skills of women and "MOM".
M.G. - Sadly, stuff like that rarely can be overcome to make a marriage work. I'm glad they didn't marry.

Rob - My brothers and I didn't go to Ivies for similar reasons. Even back then the rot was evident. My brothers are technical and I'm a switch hitter.

Good Old Charlie - I don't know. The man who wrote the article obviously shared the problem, but maybe it is more likely in women. I personally don't have any feel for the source. It is true, for example, that military service would blow up this narrow a perspective.

I read the whole article carefully, and then asked my brothers to read it, and their reactions were nearly identical to my own. So perhaps it is more of a cultural bias, and men could have more interactions that break them out of it.

Fundamentally it is a problem of character. There's a deeper moral lack that radiates through this sort of stuff.

The man who wrote the article lives in such an incredibly provincial mental world! That comment about intellectualism being born in the eighteenth century, the absolute lack of even a scientific world view.... Whatever education is, this isn't it.

It does strike me that he is describing an "elite" that is formed to be provincial in the extreme and irresponsible to boot. I think the gulf between the scientists and technical students at Ivies and the liberal arts people must be huge, but if you look at a man like James Hansen, you see a similar tendency. I suppose a scientist or engineer who was from a similar social background and taught in such institutions could become a very frightening person with regard to social beliefs.

Needless to say, a group of people like this are doomed to be political boobs, because not only do they not know what they are missing, they are programmed to search for it in the places in which they cannot find it. They think they are taught to analyze, but no, they have no ability to do so. Analysis first requires data.

It does make me understand why the political punditry I read is so out of whack.

Historically speaking, the Ivies were among the most supportive of the social Darwinists and eugenists, and then somewhat fond of Hitler before WWII. They have a bad record.

What ARE your Google/Blogger problems?
Btw - reading this article helped me understand how our current financial crisis could develop. By 2005 it was obvious how the mortgage/corporate credit finangle would end, and the smaller players mostly started pulling back. But the big boys all ran straight into the wall, and that is probably because they have a solid foundation in this groupthink.

You could have taken any engineer worth anything, any programmer, most carpenters, most car mechanics right off the street (almost anyone whose profession requires quantitative thinking), given your test group a three day course in how mortgage funding works, and almost every such person would have realized the problem independently.

So it is not much of a testimony to our "elite". Our elite is staggeringly stupid when faced with real world problems. It also explains why Pelosi is still worrying about organic food while the energy crisis is about to kill the economy. They do care (because they want to be reelected), but they do not have the skills to see it coming.
I think maybe the word "intellectual" has become so broadly used as to become almost meaningless. We need to bring back two other words--"clerks" (in the medieval sense) and "sophists" (in the Greek sense).
MG...I'd say your friend had a narrow escape. I'm actually surprised that an MIT grad, even from Boston, would be such a snob; usually engineers are a bit more down to earth.

The story reminded me of another story. Sidney Harman, CEO of Harman Industries, tells in his book about a hospital for which he was a board member. He observed two doctors conversing in the middle of the floor, either oblivious to or uncaring about the fact that they were keeping the janitor from being able to sweep where they were standing.

I doubt if these doctors were "intellectuals" but their attitude probably did have much to do with their education.
Dear Mom:

Well, let me give you a bit of my history. As you might gather, I did have an elitist education: first Jesuit Prep School, then Caltech, then Harvard. Don't get any more elite...

I was not all that impressed with the liberal arts grad students, even though I had friends there and (blush) met my wife in liberal arts (would you believe the Divinity School??).

I found that when you had a heart to heart talk with liberal arts folks (not all), they were amazed to find you also had "an education" that acquainted you with more than advanced math and quantum mechanics.

But, on the other hand, they asked "and just what is it you DO, Charles" they were completely at sea. Newton they heard of, Einstein sounded familiar, and Darwinian Evolution was only an article of faith. I could discuss The New Testament in Greek (read it in prep school), four years Latin, and fairly fluent in German, and studying Russian for my second PhD language requirement.

After a few major slap downs, I was no longer patronized. And patronization was much in the vogue in GSAS. This is how the elites of all ages keep their Egos moving and exercised.

I could keep up with them and in some fields knew more than they did (music especially - they all had tin ears). My only weakness, found after months of probing, was a lack of fine arts and applied arts.

Interestingly enough, I had no problems with Law School or (especially) the MBAs. A lot of the MBAs were coming off an engineering/economics background -- which was right up my alley.

The lawyers were generally well versed in history and quite analytic in their thinking. Again, no problemo! I was (and still am) into military history and found interesting guys (no gals again) to talk with and argue with.

Oh yeah, we looked down our noses at what is now the fashionable majors. Sociology was for jerks (Applied Iodiocy 101 it was called), the Black and Gender Studies - such as they were then - were for the great intellectually unwashed. No beers with them after an evening's questions and discussions set...

So we, too, were snobs of sorts: I think it comes with the age and the tastes of the individual.

Yes, getting back to the NT: "There is a great gulf fixed between us and them...". Even though there was much talk about C.P Snows' "The Two Cultures", the gap persisted then and persists to this day.

I have spoken...at great and boring lengths, I fear.

Good Ole Charlie

PS: The best school for me? My Prep School. The best place for my education? Caltech. Harvard: the best place for me to blossom into the jerk I remain...and meet my wife (a wholly good thing).
This strikes me as Narcissism rather than Intellectualism.The Inability to see those that not " members of my tribe" as human is not new and is, I think a slightly less ugly form of classical narcissism.sociopathy is just a little further along the scale...Tom Stone
This reminds me of an anecdote that m great-uncle used to tell. He was a plumber. One time he did a job at this house where the owner had all his Ivy League Diplomas and other certifications framed and hanging in the kitchen.

So my uncle wrote on the blackboard "ABE X, Ph.D.: Pluming, heating, and Drains."

I thought it was funny, but I only have a "second tier" education so what do I know? ;)
MOM, I think you are reading too much into this. The author made the amazing discovery that being good or being successful isn't just about being "smart." To steal a phrase, the author just found out there were some unknown unknowns. Good for him.

I see this regularly when I need to interview new candidates for my law firm. There are many people who proceed with a swagger borne of sustained success in a limited sphere. They don't realize that being a good lawyer is about so much more than writing a good brief - it is about judgment and character. Someone who is *just* smart is a high-priced technician.

You also connected this article to Obama. If I understand you correctly, you are afraid that Obama is one of those people who doesn't recognize the limits of his own knowledge, so he charges forward without recognizing the collateral effects of his actions.

Perhaps. You have been right to call Obama on some of the stupid things he has said and done. On the other hand, our current political system is unkind to candidates without a ready answer on every conceivable topic. He might have just been playing the game as it is exists.

For example, I was personally encouraged by the recent article about Obama and McCain's gambling habits. Obama evidently plays a smart, subtle game, with rare bluffs and a focus on the fundamentals. He knows, at least in that context, that he has incomplete information. That doesn't mean that he never loses - just like that doesn't mean that he never says or does stupid things in the political arena. My highest hopes for Obama are not as a transformational leader, but as someone who in his actions makes small, incremental steps towards better governance.

The most telling part of the article was the part about the cult of the A-, and the spread of elite mediocrity. There are many high-level people who use their "education" and connections to become hugely dependent upon the public coffers. I would rather they be on welfare. It would be much more straightforward, much less expensive, and there would be less self-congratulatory rhetoric for their occasional accidental successes.
Anonymous: "My highest hopes for Obama are not as a transformational leader, but as someone who in his actions makes small, incremental steps towards better governance....
There are many high-level people who use their "education" and connections to become hugely dependent upon the public coffers."

My problem with Obama is that these are the people with whom he's most closely associated. What's more, he and his wife have both emphasized "service" and non-profit work as the highest ideals.

I live in a town (Minneapolis) which is lousy with high-minded folk who have created nice sinecures in the non-profit categories. It's considered an ideal placement; no heavy lifting, generous benefits, no expectation of performance, and the only sweat comes from the annual round of grant applications. And, of course, one must snuggle up to the Democrat legislators, because a renewable government earmark is the best way to ensure financial success.

I may be wrong about her being an MIT grad; she's a programmer, not an engineer. But all of her friends come out of the Harvard/MIT world.
The "nonprofit" world is well-designed for kids with wealthy parents and elite-institution degrees. Initial salaries are usually pretty low, which screens out those who have to make their own way in the world. But these jobs can often be leveraged into government "policy" jobs which in turn can be leveraged back into higher-paid jobs in the "nonprofit" sector and eventually into board memberships, consultancies, etc, in the private sector.
Anon 7:37 - the reason I did connect the article to Obama is precisely because of the reasoning in it about the correct way to change things. The prof thinks that it is to destroy all allegiances, sneak off to Walden Pond, and emerge with a stunning work of individual brilliance. The real world does not work that way.

As David and M.G. have noted, non-profits (which do some very good work), suffer from a lack of connection with the real world and the real economy.

I have spent a great deal of time reading Obama's website to try to figure his direction, and he does seem to be out there altogether, which fits in with his "bitter" and "Americans can't eat all they want to" remarks.

The bottom line is that the professor wants to be a decent humanist, but does not know that humanism is both caring about the welfare of the plumber and realizing that the plumber is a human being just like he is. Our fearless prof asserts that principle but does not understand how it works.

This is a quote from the article:
I began comparing my experience, and even more, my students’ experience, with the experience of a friend of mine who went to Cleveland State. There are due dates and attendance requirements at places like Yale, but no one takes them very seriously. Extensions are available for the asking; threats to deduct credit for missed classes are rarely, if ever, carried out. In other words, students at places like Yale get an endless string of second chances. Not so at places like Cleveland State. My friend once got a D in a class in which she’d been running an A because she was coming off a waitressing shift and had to hand in her term paper an hour late.
And this is his conclusion about the difference:
At schools like Cleveland State, they’re being trained for positions somewhere in the middle of the class system, in the depths of one bureaucracy or another. They’re being conditioned for lives with few second chances, no extensions, little support, narrow opportunity—lives of subordination, supervision, and control, lives of deadlines, not guidelines.

The conclusion is tragically stupid. Students at places like Cleveland State are being trained to compete in the real world. If the bridge falls down, if the business plan is nonsense, if the investment fails, if the marketing plan blows up - there is no recourse. The people who succeed hugely in business and science are people who apply rigorous standards to their own lives.

The problem with the Ivy world of the socially responsible is the lack of accountability. David and M.G. are expressing a worry that I've heard from several sources, and that worry can be expressed in terms that to them no problem is really serious.

Obama's desire to do good and to reach out is genuine. His ability to accomplish his desires is what is in question.

Think back to what concerns so many about Obama's Hope-Change rhetoric. It is about building the desire to do something wonderful, rather a concern with the mechanics - which is a profoundly elitist belief which could only have been nurtured in an Ivory Tower.

Failure to understand the constraints of a system equates to an inability to improve the system. That's an axiom. Without an understanding of how the system does work, imposing changes will generally result in destruction.
In "State of Fear" (which was a long essay disguised as a novel) Michael Crichton suggests that nonprofits should have a life of ten years; after that the main goal of the organization becomes its own survival.
Ivy League vs Cleveland State...many graduates of "elite" colleges graduate toward *staff* roles rather than *line* roles. In business, they are more likely to be in some kind of planning and review job than anything with revenue or P&L responsibility. In government, you are more likely to find them doing studies of the future of transportation than running the Atlanta Tower for the FAA.
Let me come at this from another direction, being somewhat literate with a few years in college (the state kind--used to hang out a bit with kids at Stanford when I was in high school. Wasn't impressed then).

I've worked with an interesting group of uneducated folks; farmers, factory workers, fruit pickers, etc. Some are pretty much what you would expect. You find some interesting rough gems. Farmers, for example, have time to think and you find some interesting self-educated types. Sort of like the guy that owned an orchard, after travelling around the world doing deckhand work and then working as a technical writer for Boeing. He taught technical writing at the local community college, where I met him. I'm sure the contempt level would be there, if he was dealing with an elite. I guess my point is that folks with their nose up in the air miss out on a lot of interesting folks and some great stories.

I run into those women all the time in my line of work. I refer to them as "princesses". They treat everyone like servants and they whine, oh Lord, they whine about everything and insist that you come out right away and fix their problems. The men (and they are out there) are oh so busy, too busy to talk to you on the phone and, of course need to have things fixed right away. Typically, they are running a business on a residential account and yet expect to get business support (without understanding that it is exactly that level of support that you pay extra for.)

There was a time when we made the distinction between book learning and common sense. Maybe we need to start making that distinction again.

The behavior of non-profits as time goes on is a consequence of Pournelle's Iron Law of Bureaucracies:

In any bureaucratic organization there will be two kinds of people: those who work to further the actual goals of the organization, and those who work for the organization itself. Examples in education would be teachers who work and sacrifice to teach children, vs. union representative who work to protect any teacher including the most incompetent. The Iron Law states that in all cases, the second type of person will always gain control of the organization, and will always write the rules under which the organization functions.
To summarise:

Momma, you are afraid America may soon elect a president who does not recognise the limits of his own knowledge and intelligence, and who may implement damaging policies accordingly. This would differ from the current incumbent in what way - "reality based" as an administration insult for example?
You left out some of the best parts:

Elite schools nurture excellence, but they also nurture what a former Yale graduate student I know calls “entitled mediocrity.” A is the mark of excellence; A- is the mark of entitled mediocrity....

For the elite, there’s always another extension—a bailout, a pardon, a stint in rehab—always plenty of contacts and special stipends—the country club, the conference, the year-end bonus, the dividend. If Al Gore and John Kerry represent one of the characteristic products of an elite education, George W. Bush represents another. It’s no coincidence that our current president, the apotheosis of entitled mediocrity, went to Yale. Entitled mediocrity is indeed the operating principle of his administration, but as Enron and WorldCom and the other scandals of the dot-com meltdown demonstrated, it’s also the operating principle of corporate America.

This article touches on much of what is absolutely wrong with America - there is a privileged class that gets taken care of, no matter what the consequences.

As for It means foreswearing your allegiance, in lonely freedom, to God, to country, and to Yale. - add the word "blind" in front of "allegiance" and look again - any human being must at least consider that his beliefs, his school, or his country are wrong, or he has not given the issues involved any real thought at all.
Anon 7:33 - Your argument is nonsensical. Some of the things the electorate now favors (such as drilling domestically) are items that the Bush Admin tried to get through several times. We have in this country far greater problems than the Bush Admin ever caused, and most of those unaddressed problems are the result of a bipartisan consensus to pretend it all wasn't happening.

It should not escape your notice that Congressional approval levels have fallen more than 20 percent below those of the Bush administration.

The latest Rasmussen poll has Congressional approval down at 9%? 9%? Also, independents are the most dissatisfied.

I have deep disagreements with Bush on some issues, but that still doesn't lay the accountability for a lot of our problems at his doorstep.

It is also deeply unfair to the next president. Some real and hard choices must be made, and if the next president tries to get Congress to act like a functional body and make them, that president will deserve our support. But everyone's going to take it in the kisser when we finally start addressing our problems. Entitlement programs are going to be cut and taxes are going to go up. No one's going to be happy.

Not only can't we afford universal medical care, we are going to have to find a way to really fund Medicare. Reimbursement rates have dropped too low to keep doctors in the system and hospitals afloat.
Bob - but he didn't write "blind". You have to at least take what he wrote seriously.

His basic idea of an "intellectual" is comprised of a loner who goes off on his own and comes up with some brilliant idea, like Thoreau on meth, then comes back like Jesus from the wilderness to convert us all. This is not how the real world works.

It's a stupid conception that falls in line with his confusion over the mentalities of plumbers. It is the duty of every citizen to think things over and try to vote so as to keep the country heading in a decent direction. That is not forswearing allegiance - that is citizenship.

If Bush's approval ratings are down around 34%, and Congressional approval ratings are down to single digits, just how many Americans are wandering around in a fog of blind allegiance anyway?

Having allegiance to a constitutional republic means supporting the Constitution and engaging in a minimum of civic activity. It is the humanistic thing to do. It is not possible to "forswear allegiance" to the fire department, local hospital, and EMTs. Not if you are sane and logical.

In short, I'm saying his ideas fail the reality test to a massive degree. He does appear to be living in some eighteenth century romantic fog, believing that he is the one sole humanist left at Yale or whatever. He's an arrogant prig trying to be a better man, and thus he has a great deal in common with the plumber and all the rest of us, who are no better than we should be (what a fine old useful phrase), but not generally quite so proud of our shortcomings.
Forget education, it's humanity Europe denigrates.
At the end of the day I agree America is traveling on an unsustainable path and needs to wake up and smell the coffee as soon as possible. But at the end of the day in a democracy people get the governments they deserve.

All the facts are out there for those who care to look, but citizens continually opt to vote for the 'easy lie' (e.g., McCain's claim to balance the budget over 4 years!) and/or cling angrily to lovely abstract notions like 'the American Dream' (i.e., a God-given right to low taxes but good roads and infrastructure, and to stupidly-large autos and cheap gas).

I really have no axe to grind as I get no US vote. However, can you in all objectivity say that someone like Obama - who was almost the sole dissenter on the Iraq Invasion, and who proposes tax hikes on the very wealthy to try to balance the budget - is somehow more 'dangerous' than this Bush administration, which lives in its own right-wing Aristotelian bubble and cares not a jot for the consequences.

We are where we are now for a reason. Many US politicians have led us here, but George W put his foot down on the gas and locked all the doors in my opinion...

Anyway, I wish the US all the best for the future...but agree with you that a pitchforks and burning torches scenario is looming.
Anon - this is why I am so dispirited. I read Obama's economic plan, and it doesn't make sense either.

He's got a laundry list of programs and tax giveaways that are not possible to fund.

Also many of his proposals are simply wacky, such as "encouraging" banks to give small loans to people to put payday lenders out of business while maxing interest rates at 36%. He's referring there to the MAPR calculation, which took effect for military people. By the time you prepare paperwork and book the account, it cost $50-$75 to process a few hundred dollar loan. Since that fee is included in APR calculations, no bank can lend below 36%. You'd take a loss. Effectively banks are providing small loans now to individuals via ODP, but who knows, the law might even make that illegal.

Have you read his plan? It's utterly financially bogus.

I like the sound of "clean coal", but define that? A lot of the stuff is given without enough details to properly assess, but all the stuff about refundable tax credits is easy to count up, and will cause one heck of a fiscal problem.
"You don't need any intellect to be an Intellectual."
-- G.K.Chesterton

"When I hear the word 'Intellectual', I REACH FOR MY GUN!"
-- Benito Mussolini

Headless Unicorn Guy
(Who was once denounced as a hopelessly retarded Untermensch because he was ONE IQ POINT below the Intellectual Ubermensch making the Selection...)
This article touches on much of what is absolutely wrong with America - there is a privileged class that gets taken care of, no matter what the consequences. -- bobn

In Ancient Regime France, these were called Les Aristos.

In the UK, this is called "Birth and Breeding (TM)".
Momma, you are afraid America may soon elect a president who does not recognise the limits of his own knowledge and intelligence, and who may implement damaging policies accordingly. This would differ from the current incumbent in what way? -- Anon 7:33

For openers, Bush has not been worshipped as Messiah by the Media, Celebrities, and other Beautiful People. Not for the past eight years.

Obama has heard nothing but "O come let us adore Him! O come let us adore Him! O come let us adore Him!" from all directions for the past six months with no sign of letting up. THAT is the type of flattery that goes to your head until you believe you are a god (after all, your worshippers are telling you so in unending hymns of praise).

THAT is what especially worries me about Obama. Someone who has heard nothing but that unending torrent of praise for himself will be completely out to sea at the first reality check. Because reality has this habit of breaking in whether you want it to or not.
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