Wednesday, June 08, 2011

The Death Of The Mind

predicate (v. cate; n - kit)- 1. orig. - to proclaim, affirm. 2. a) to declare to be a quality, attribute, or proptery of something [tp predicate the honesty of his motives] bz0 Logic to put forth as a pdedicate in a proposition 3. to base (something) on or upon facts, condition, etc. [the decisions of the courts are predicated upon the Constitution] 5. to imply or connote. -n. 1. the word or words that say something about the subject of a sentence or clause: a predicate may be a verb, a ver and adverb, a verb and its object, or a linking verb and its complement; 2. Logic something that is said to be true or denied about the subject of a proposition.
Webster's New World Dictionary of the American Language, Students Edition

We Americans don't do education well. Not primary education. Not secondary education. Higher education? Well, our graduate schools are filled with folks from all over the world, to be sure. Does that mean we do higher education well, or does that mean we have Universities with really good marketing departments?

Apart from the nonsensical mumbo-jumbo of all our "talk" about "education" and the need for "reform" (which usually boils down to two sides - the status-quo folks and the anti-teacher/anti-teacher union folks - shouting at one another about trivia), the reality is simple enough - we don't do education well because we can't agree what education is, or what it should exist for, what it should be about. Is it giving bare facts, rote memorization to be regurgitated on test day, then forgotten? Is it to be given enough information and understanding to move through life and the world without stumbling too badly when we apply for a job, get married, apply for that first car loan/mortgage? Is it cultivating the habit (in the Latinate usage of a practice) of critical thinking and engagement in order to expand human knowledge and understanding?

The short answer is that "education" is whatever a society deems it should be. In the United States, we have a muddled understanding of who we are, muddled even further by powerful lobbying from various industries and interests who wish to cultivate workers with enough knowledge to do their jobs without pushing the limits of their assigned stations. We wish to cultivate good citizens without cultivating critical citizenship. We wish to insist that education is a good in and for itself yet frequently pepper our "education needs no defense" arguments with all sorts of defensive ideas about how education makes us better workers, better citizens, better human beings. Precisely because we have no clear idea what the goal of education is, we have no idea how to talk about what education should be.

All this is by way of introduction. Checking out what's new on my favorite websites, I came across a "shorter" at Sadly, No! that took aim at libertarian economist Walter Williams. Usually, I avoid Williams for any number of reasons. This time, I clicked over and was rewarded with a mass of nonsense that does what should be impossible; it is the literary, or perhaps "intellectual" equivalent of a black hole, the internal contradictions and nonsensical drivel add up to a power that, in the end, sucks the entire column in to nothingness, at least should one take the time to set forth what Williams says in logical form. Here's a sample of the hilarity:
There are a lot of things, large and small, that irk me. One of them is our tendency to evaluate a presidential candidate based on his intelligence or academic credentials.
Let us consider these first two sentences, shall we? It "irks" Professor Williams that human beings do things like take such matters as intelligence and educational background in to consideration when we consider candidates for the highest office in the land. It irks him. He is, as he says, irked that some people might think it somewhat important, be a qualification among many for the job of Chief Executive of the United States, that he or she be at least somewhat intelligent, and have a certain amount of education.

He doesn't say why he is irked, or why this state of affairs is irksome. He just is, and it is.

Continuing a bit further down.
By contrast, the intellectual elite and mainstream media people see Sarah Palin as stupid, a loose cannon and not to be trusted with our nuclear arsenal. There was another presidential candidate who was also held to be stupid and not to be trusted with our nuclear arsenal who ultimately became president -- Ronald Reagan. I don't put much stock into whether a political leader is smart or not because, as George Orwell explained, "Some ideas are so stupid that only intellectuals believe them."
First of all, I haven't heard the whole "nuclear aresenal" argument. Second, Mrs. Palin has yet to indicate, through word or deed, that she has any comprehension of anything beyond the kind of bland, conservative boiler-plate one could get at an American Legion conference. When she does make factual claims, as I noted a few days back, they are usually wrong. It isn't a question of "intellectual elite" questioning her bona fides. She manages to undermine any claim she might make to something most people refer to as intellectual heft all on her own.

Now, Mr. Williams is surely welcome to favor Mrs. Palin as a candidate, although I don't think that is his argument, or the basis for it. All the same, we should clearly understand that Sarah Palin is made the butt of stupid jokes for a very simple reason - she is.

Furthermore, before we venture further through Professor Williams cornucopia of nonsense, what, pray tell, does he do for a living? Oh, that's right - Dr. Williams serves on the faculty of George Mason University as John M. Olin Distinguished Professor of Economics. So, he's . . . an intellectual, by definition.

There are less important things that irk me. One of them is teleological explanations. I've listened to TV weather reports and heard the weatherman say, "There will be morning clouds, but the sun will try to come out later in the day." Often, the weatherman's predication is wrong, and it remains cloudy all day. Would the weatherman explain that the day remained cloudy because the sun didn't try hard enough?
Huh? I read this paragraph three or four times, and was struck by the dumb, as it were. "Often, the weatherman's predication is wrong" appears to look like a sentence, but "predication"? I have no idea what is "predicated" in the weatherman's statement. It's the kind of bland chatter that is understood by both speaker and listener to mean something entirely different, even apposite, any literal interpretation. Being irked by this kind of thing makes me wonder why people say liberals take small things much too seriously. Furthermore, as he spends quite a bit of time complaining about poor grammar -
Another mini-irk is to hear someone say something such as "Dave and myself went shopping." My question might be that if Dave hadn't come along, how would you describe what you did? Would you say, "Myself went shopping?" Grammar lesson: Myself is a reflexive pronoun. As such, it must be preceded by a pronoun to which it refers, namely its antecedent, within the same sentence. For example: "I, myself, wrote this column."

Another grammatical irritant is a statement such as "John is taller than me." Hearing such a grammatical error, Dr. Martin Rosenberg, my high school English teacher, would pitch a fit, sarcastically asking, "Do you mean John is taller than me am?" He'd explain that am is the elliptical, or understood, verb in the sentence, and the subject of any verb must be in the nominative case; therefore, the sentence should be, "John is taller than I."
- it might be nice if Williams displayed a bit of grammatical understanding himself.


So, we have on display an instance, in short, of, "Doctor, heal thyself." A tenured professor of economics at a University complaining that people expect our Presidents to be smart, putting part of the blame on intellectuals, of whom Dr. Williams is one. Furthermore, we have said intellectual creating muddled sentences, logically incoherent claims, using really bad word choice.

On a more serious note, Crooked Timber has a nice post taking Martha Nussbaum to task for writing a book purportedly in defense of the humanities, but filled with the kind of bland bureaucratic pabulum that usually is reserved for use by University administrators. One comment, by Chris Bertram, is pertinent for me:
[T]he central idea of the book, that receipt of a certain type of humanities education is necessary for people to acquire the capacities for empathic imagination that (according to MN) are necessary virtues of democratic (and indeed global) citizenship strikes me as (a) obviously false and (b) insulting to those of her fellow citizens who haven’t been the beneficiaries of such courses. Those given a more technical education are described as “useful machines” as early as p.2.
I, too, find much of the kinds of things Nussbaum says ridiculous on the face of things. For example, I have yet to meet "a citizen of the world", although I assume fore the ubiquity of the claim such creatures must exist somewhere. While it may well be important for human beings to inculcate understandings of difference, this in no way implies, let alone demands, that we set aside our local or national loyalties for the nonexistent status of world-citizen. In fact, it doesn't take "education", let alone humanities education, to build up a virtue of human empathy and understanding. One can defend the role of education in the humanities for any number of reasons related to citizenship and participation in our public life. This, however, is not one of them

As I stated at the beginning, we do not know what education is because we don't really know what we want education to be. For this reason, we have a muddle of a column, including insults hurled at intellectuals by an intellectual. Said intellectual displays a lack of self-awareness, not to mention silliness, in the midst of misusing words and praising our public dolt for her love for the Constitution, one of many virtues she has yet to display adequately for most people in America. On the other hand, we have the bland, cliche-ridden prose of another intellectual who can't seem to say anything that hasn't been said before without saying it exactly as others have said it.

Thus does the American mind continue to wither on the vine.

Virtual Tin Cup

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