Cultural Cognition is Not a Bias

Some recent posts by Dan Kahan on the subject of “cultural cognition” deserve attention:

(Cultural cognition refers to the tendency of individuals to conform their beliefs about disputed matters of fact (e.g., whether global warming is a serious threat; whether the death penalty deters murder; whether gun control makes society more safe or less) to values that define their cultural identities.)

There’s no remotely plausible account of human rationality—of our ability to accumulate genuine knowledge about how the world works—that doesn’t treat as central individuals’ amazing capacity to reliably identify and put themselves in intimate contact with others who can transmit to them what is known collectively as a result of science.

Indeed, as I said at the outset, it is not correct even to describe cultural cognition as a heuristic. A heuristic is a mental “shortcut”—an alternative to the use of a more effortful, and more intricate mental operation that might well exceed the time and capacity of most people to exercise in most circumstances.

But there is no substitute for relying on the authority of those who know what they are talking about as a means of building and transmitting collective knowledge. Cultural cognition is no shortcut; it is an integral component in the machinery of human rationality.

Unsurprisingly, the faculties that we use in exercising this feature of our rationality can be compromised by influences that undermine its reliability. One of those influences is the binding of antagonistic cultural meanings to risk and other policy-relevant facts. But it makes about as much sense to treat the disorienting impact of antagonistic meanings as evidence that cultural cognition is a bias as it does to describe the toxicity of lead paint as evidence that human intelligence is a “bias.”

Look: people aren’t stupid. They know they can’t resolve difficult empirical issues (on climate change, on HPV-vaccine risks, on nuclear power, on gun control, etc.) on their own, so they do the smart thing: they seek out the views of experts whom they trust to help them figure out what the evidence is. But the experts they are most likely to trust, not surprisingly, are the ones who share their values.

What makes me feel bleak about the prospects of reason isn’t anything we find in our studies; it is how often risk communicators fail to recruit culturally diverse messengers when they are trying to communicate sound science.

The number of scientific insights that make our lives better and that don’t culturally polarize us is orders of magnitude greater than the ones that do. There’s not a “culture war” over going to doctors when we are sick and following their advice to take antibiotics when they figure out we have infections. Individualists aren’t throttling egalitarians over whether it makes sense to pasteurize milk or whether high-voltage power lines are causing children to die of leukemia.

People (the vast majority of them) form the right beliefs on these and countless issues, moreover, not because they “understand the science” involved but because they are enmeshed in networks of trust and authority that certify whom to believe about what.

For sure, people with different cultural identities don’t rely on the same certification networks. But in the vast run of cases, those distinct cultural certifiers do converge on the best available information. Cultural communities that didn’t possess mechanisms for enabling their members to recognize the best information—ones that consistently made them distrust those who do know something about how the world works and trust those who don’t—just wouldn’t last very long: their adherents would end up dead.

Rational democratic deliberations about policy-relevant science, then, doesn’t require that people become experts on risk. It requires only that our society take the steps necessary to protect its science communication environment from a distinctive pathology that enfeebles ordinary citizens from using their (ordinarily) reliable ability to discern what it is that experts know.

Reflections on my Crime and Punishment Seminar


Old Ohio Penitentiary by J. Harris Day
Old Ohio Penitentiary by J. Harris Day

This semester I taught a course on crime and punishment, and in part out of competition with my colleague Seth Vannatta, I set out to give a final presentation on the dimensions of the course. This is the presentation I wrote.


Our task was to explore the role of ethics in the law, and we began our semester worrying about standard ethical questions of responsibility and who to blame when things go wrong. The standard theories of punishment all revolve around these questions: whether we are utilitarians or contractarians, we are implicitly depending upon an account of what we owe to the criminal and to society. What’s more, the same assumptions underwrite our theories of what it is to deserve a grade (an A, an F), to deserve the love of our partners, or to deserve a particular job or a raise. This question of where to locate merit in our account of responsibility is particularly troubling, however, when someone is harmed, when a law is broken, or a right is infringed.

Simple questions of positive and common law or negligence, willfulness, and standards of care quickly morphed into a thorny metaphysical question: how can we be responsible for our acts if we could not have done otherwise, that is, if the mechanistic picture of the universe and our genetics and our society and our brains is true, and what I ate for breakfast or the crimes I commit before dinner are all predetermined?

Reactive Attitudes

The courts want to avoid such questions, but throughout the semester my contention was that they end up smuggling metaphysical accounts of agency into their descriptions of the non-culpability of children for trespass. Yet what we saw in Peter Stawson’s account of the reactive attitudes was an attempt to save responsibility, praise, and blame while jettisoning the supposedly-unavoidable metaphysical underpinnings. By redescribing blame and responsibility in terms of their own possibly-deterministic framework, Strawson allows us to say something like the following: “Maybe you could not have done other than what you have done, maybe your virtues and your vices are both unavoidable, but my reactions are no more avoidable. If you cannot be expected to have prevented your crimes, then I cannot be expected to prevent your punishment.”

This certainly appears to be a satisfying solution to the problem, because the law cannot requires a victim or a judge to achieve an inhuman level of restraint in the face of a dazzling failure of restraint in the perpetrator. Strawson’s “reactive attitudes” account comforts us by communicating just how unfair this asymmetry actually is. And yet… in beginning to spell out conditions for the defeasibility for responsibility, Strawson reiterates that not all actions and reactions are symmetrical. Under many circumstances, a victim truly does have more restraint than a perpetrator, and ought to exercise  it, too. (Not just to prevent cycles of reprisal, although that certainly counts in its favor; to get beyond a mere modus vivendi to what we might mean by justice.) Even more: a judge’s capacity to see beyond the dyadic relationship of injury and blame means that she can ask questions about the overarching justice and efficacy of a punishment.

Grammatical Theories

Thus we entered what we called the “grammatical” theories of agency and responsibility. We experience our own lives through the first-person lens, as “I.” Meanwhile, we can talk about the other person in two different ways: as a second-person “you” or as a third-person “them.” And underwriting these lenses or grammatical conventions is the fact that we tend to see ourselves as agents and others as passive, to an extent that is so asymmetric and inconsistent that it is hard to believe it can be warranted. For instance, we are much more likely to explain our own failings in terms of circumstances, while we tend to describe the failings of others in terms of character, intention, or predilection. “I” fail because of events and impediments beyond my control, despite my best efforts. “You” fail because you didn’t try hard enough, you just weren’t willing to work at it; “they” fail because that’s just what they’re like, “they” are failures.

So what starts as an attempt to avoid the difficult metaphysical problems gets bogged down in our cognitive heuristics and biases. In gathering the texts we read together, I tried to duck this problem by adopting the third-person perspective, moving the course from the questions of just deserts to systematic accounts of the problem. Of course, all the intutions and issues of first-person and second-person agency and responsibility are still lurking there for you to pick up, if you like, but we’re all fascinated by the political theory and history, so I followed our collective inclinations. “Don’t blame me!” I guess I’m saying. “We are collectively responsible!”

The Republican Theory of Punishment

In order to ground our discussions of justice, we tried to transition from metaphysical and psychological accounts of freedom to the political and legal theory of liberty, that thing of which coercion and the threat of interference and violence deprives us. At about this point it began to be increasingly difficult to ignore issues of race, even in the sense of putting them off until we got to Michele Alexander’s book. So when John Braithwaite and Philip Pettit offered a theory of dominion as the equality of social status and defended it explicitly with reference to the differential “costs of victimization investigation” that African-Americans face, it became increasingly difficult to ignore the discriminatory intents and impacts of things like the death penalty.

Perhaps the most interesting insight that Braithwaite and Pettit offer is the conclusion that much punishment is simply an attempt to preserve hierarchy rather than to right an inequality. This is something we well-recognize in looking around at the race and class of those who get punished in the US, but philosophers too frequently ignore it. What’s more Braithwaite and Pettit offered us an explanation of what makes coercion and domination so difficult: not the harm or loss of utility, nor the shear loss of doing what you want to do, but the way that it harms our social standing, makes some “better than” and others “less than.” Many political philosophers have concluded that a democratic society cannot function if it is not populated by social equals. The only problem is that so many so-called democracies *do* seem to have serious social hierarchies, and as university students and faculty we inhabit an elitist institution that sets out to distinguish erudition from ignorance and good work from bad.

Costs and Benefits

One way to articulate the appeal of the theory of non-domination that Pettit offered is the way in which it gives us a tool to balance the costs of victimization against the costs of investigation and incarceration. But the balancing act favored just one variable, equality, and it seemed that this is not the only way to proceed. Sometimes, as in markets, equality should take a back-seat to other values, like efficiency and optimality.

In his book When Brute Force Fails, Mark Kleiman offered a different account. He suggested that given how much we spend on and lose to crime-avoidance, perhaps some large amount of criminality is simply inefficient, and we’d be better off spending even more of our scarce resources on eliminating it. What is more, he suggested, we not only need to spend more preventing crime, but we need to spend these greater resources more intelligently. (Work harder AND smarter.) Yet the real strength of his argument is not so much the cost-benefit analysis but his prescriptions: that infrequent, uncertain, and severe punishments are simply not much of a deterrent, while swift, certain, and light-but-escalating punishments could be much more effective, saving us costs to the criminal as well as the victim.

Given how much crime costs us as a society (and Kleiman includes the cost to the criminals!) there is much benefit to be had from preventing it. Yet so long as we organize our response to crime around the concept of punishment rather than prevention, we will tend to choose more severe and less effective regimes of investigation, correction, and incarceration.

Surveillance and Punishment

Despite its appeal, Kleiman’s prescriptions fall under the rubric of an increasingly surveyed disciplinary society, one that simply uses new technologies from psychology and economics to do a better job of controlling its citizenry. The justification for this increased control is that citizens desire safety and security more than they wish to be free from such disciplinary technologies, and Kleiman is undoubtedly right that that is our preference. However, we should worry.

The heart of the course was a close reading of Foucault’s book Discipline and Punish, and if his history taught us anything, it is that social knowledge always has two faces: the production of justificatory knowledge and “truths” by experts who stand to gain from their expertise, and the development of practices and techniques for the regulation and management of bodies.

Much of the first half of the semester was devoted to the production of knowledge and the progress we have made in discerning the true and the just ways of investigating and punishing. But what Foucault attempts to lay bare is the way in which our contemporary treatments of prisoners’ bodies are only intensifications of historical brutalities we think of as inhumane. The intensification follows an introverting path: we have certainly lost the stomach for the spectacle of the regicide being drawn and quartered or the criminal hung on the scaffold. But incarceration and rehabilitation, the watch-words of criminal science, take up a set of tasks related to the ordering of unruly and delinquent bodies that is much more effective but no less self-serving. We now have the tools for more power, and if Foucault is right then we will generally put these instruments to use in asserting our own advantage by dominating others.

Both the concerns about social hierarchies and the recognition of the radically racialized form that incarceration and punishment take in the US suggest that “our own advantage” may include my students and I, but it is unlikely to include the majority of black people and it is unlikely to include the majority of people without college degrees. Recognizing the power that our knowledge allows us does not mean that we can necessarily bend that power to our wills; it is much more likely that it will continue to accrue advantages for us even if we try to betray it, just a rich person’s Capital continues to make money even if they purport to be egalitarian communists.

Punitive Isolation and Bare Life

Deepening our understanding of the techniques of imprisonment, we read essays (including a great one by Lisa Guenther) on the horrors of solitary confinement and the sometimes bewildering Homo Sacre by Giorgio Agamben on the forms of exclusion that seem to have a permanent place in our prison system.

If Agamben is right, then these new forms are all a part of an overarching paradigm, that of the reduction of human beings to their mere physicality and biology. This political movement towards reduction transforms flourishing into survival, and it does it in a way that has been continuously experimented with since the first colonists started to round South African natives into “concentration camps” for ease of management. When those colonial overlords returned home to Europe, they brought their techniques of domination with them, and so in that sense the Holocaust was Europe’s chickens coming home to roost, a “boomerang effect” by which European Jews reap what European capitalists sow.

Biopolitics is a form of legal sovereignty in which “modern man” is a depicted as “an animal whose politics calls his existence as a living being into question” but it makes sense only as a development of the totalitarian interpenetration of politics and private life. The modern sovereign no longer decides between ‘letting his subjects live or making them die,’ rather he chooses to ‘make them live or let them die.’ Thus he distinguishes the form of a power that disciplines its subjects and channels their activity from one that simply responds to infractions with infrequent but grotesque punishments.

Trying to spell out exactly how these new techniques and knowledges serve the purpose of domination is something of a challenge precisely because they are still in the experimental stage, still being contested. In the absence of opposition, however, they have been allowed to remain in unquestioned use for far too long. The very nature of bare life and isolation means that the contestation that would normally be working through these techniques and forcing them to receive some form of justification has been slow to form even among those academics who are supposedly most opposed to domination and who purport to ally themselves always and everywhere with the downtrodden and silenced. Let me suggest one reason, at least, why you should think that there is still work to do.

Agamben suggests that we ought to see ourselves in solidarity with the least of us; the immigrants and refugees, those without rights. No doubt he is motivated by the idea that the rightless are marked by the fact that they rise in status when they have committed a crime, because only then are they granted procedural rights (like the right to a trial) and recognized within the legal framework. In practice, however, it may be more effective to view prisoners through the lens of the nomos of the camp.

The New Jim Crow

One concept we did not discuss in our class in much detail is race solidarity and race treason. But when we turned to Michelle Alexander’s book it became obvious just how difficult such a discussion might be. Having made a persuasive case for the differential intention and impact of the current system of mass incarceration, Alexander then asks her readers, who she assumes will be bourgeois African-Americans like my students, to engage in a radical act of political solidarity. Rather than putting our hope in a Black president, Alexander suggests that quietly celebrating civil rights victories from fifty years ago while enjoying the benefits of what she calls the “Racial Bribe” is a kind of racial treason: selling out the majority of African-Americans for the spoils of white supremacy by becoming complicit in it. In contrast, she suggests that true opposition to white supremacy will require a rejection of the racial bribe and a laser-focus on the policies currently at work in the domination of African-Americans.

We started this class asking what sort of punishment we owe to the criminal: at the conclusion, Alexander proposed that what we owe to the criminal is solidarity. I suspect that this is a difficult proposal to accept. I do not know how to make the case any stronger than she made it, so I will simply quote Baldwin, as she does:

these men are your brothers—your lost, younger brothers. And if the word integration means anything, this is what it means: that we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it. For this is your home, my friend, do not be driven from it; great men have done great things here, and will again, and we can make America what it must become. It will be hard, but you come from sturdy, peasant stock, men who picked cotton and dammed rivers and built railroads, and, in the teeth of the most terrifying odds, achieved an unassailable and monumental dignity. You come from a long line of great poets since Homer. One of them said, The very time I thought I was lost, My dungeon shook and my chains fell off…. We cannot be free until they are free.

Yet as a white professor of African-American students, I cannot quite countenance her proposals, like when she took to the pages of the New York Times calling for a plea-bargain strike, suggesting that everyone accused of a crime act in solidarity to force the courts to a halt: “Go to Trial: Crash the Justice System.”

“What would happen if we organized thousands, even hundreds of thousands, of people charged with crimes to refuse to play the game, to refuse to plea out? What if they all insisted on their Sixth Amendment right to trial? Couldn’t we bring the whole system to a halt just like that?”

I tend to think this kind of collective action is unworkable, in part because it puts the responsibility to act on people who are risking very serious jail time if they proceed.

However, the key focus of this proposal is not only to increase demand for lawyers and judges beyond the point the system can handle, but also to increase the demand for jurors so that we must actually face what we have collectively done. Right now almost no criminal can afford to take advantage of his supposed constitutional right to a jury trial. We do everything in our power to coerce them not to use that right, and the results are spectacularly unjust even if every one of them is guilty. As a result, most citizens don’t have to face up to the decision-making a jury trail entails. That’s part of why mass incarceration is of so little interest to most people: out of sight, out of mind. At least a plea-bargain strike would put citizens back in the drivers’ seat. When we get tired enough of jury duty, perhaps we will vote to decriminalize some of the things that are taking us away from our work and families. But so long as we can leave the job to prosecutors, we’ll likely continue to vote for tougher laws and more “tools in the arsenal of prosecutors,” which is an arms race prosecutors have long since won.

Throughout the course we saw a very diverse set of authors arguing that something akin to an abolution of incarceration was required. I didn’t always realize that a text could be read in that way, but it was a running theme. It’s almost impossible to imagine, now; yet I think that these unimaginable things are often what most needs philosophical work. Why not imagine a world where almost 2% of our fellow citizens are in some way dominated by the criminal justice system? Why not imagine a world where we regularly isolate  prisoners, depriving wrongdoers of the social bonds that would be required to reenter society?

Arendt, Antisemitism, and the Chicago Teachers’ Union Strike

I am one of those ideologically-impure liberals that worries a lot about public sector unions. On the one hand, I favor workplace democracy and collaboration; on the other hand, I worry about the fact that as union membership has declined, the majority of remaining union members haved tended to be at the top of the income distribution and to have many other forms of cultural and social capital as well. A public sector union member gets input into the functioning of government as a voter, plus they get input into our government as a union member concerned about their own labor conditions. What’s more, public-sector unions are not all the same: to my mind there’s a difference between a teacher’s union and a police or prison guard union, and I’m not willing to be univocal in my support for both. Still, my bias is generally in favor of teachers: I am one, after all.

Caption BelowI recently read an interesting factoid about teaching: in the 1960s, 2/3 of all households had school age children. Today, only 1/3 do. Attempts to verify these have been unsuccessful, although the percentage has certainly been dropping for a long time along with the birth rate. (I also learned that 39% of Chicago’s public school teachers send their own children to private schools.)

Looking at the responses to the Chicago Teacher’s Strike, especially the way it pits centrist technocratic Democrats like Barack Obama and Rahm Emanuel against old-school labor progressives, I suspect that the falling percentage of families with school-age children is part of the problem. Sure, everyone agrees that education is important, but fewer families actually have current need of a good education, and so for better or worse they have begun to look at the costs rather than the benefits of strong schools.

In my view, this decline allows an interesting analogy with Hannah Arendt’s account of the growth of anti-semitism in Origins of Totalitarianism, which itself is derived from Karl Marx’s essay on On The Jewish Question. Arendt argued that Jews had failed to take advantage of their political and economic power while it was still extensive enough to garner protection from the Christian majority. When their role as scapegoat creditors was centralized into big (non-Jewish) businesses and a few Jewish financiers, the long-ignored differences between Jews and Christians exploded to the fore, with genocidal results.

Arendt bases this theory on Tocqueville’s account of the downfall of the French aristocracy:

“the French people hated aristocrats about to lose their power more than it had ever hated them before, precisely because their rapid loss of real power was not accompanied by any considerable decline in their fortunes. As long as the aristocracy held vast powers of jurisdiction, they were not only tolerated but respected. When noblemen lost their privileges, among others the privilege to exploit and oppress, the people felt them to be parasites, without any real function in the rule of the country.”

Troublesome as inequality and oppression may be, inequality without the power to back it up is even worse. Arendt suggests that the Jews refused to occupy a designated space within the European political economy, instead “choosing” to remain aloof no matter which class individual Jews would otherwise occupy. (Of course, it’s not so simple, but to Arendt it seems that there was a coincidence between the Jewish desire for group survival and the nation-state’s interest in preventing assimiliation.) Yet according to Arendt this became a great problem when successful Jews sought acceptance and assimilation into the professions and intellectual elites:

“Central and Western European Jewries had reached a saturation point in wealth and economic fortune. This might have been the moment for them to show that they actually wanted money for money’s sake or for power’s sake. In the former case, they might have expanded their businesses and handed them down to their descendants; in the latter they might have entrenched themselves more firmly in state business and fought the influence of big business and industry on governments. But they did neither. In the contrary, the sons of well-to-do businessmen and, to a lesser extent, bankers, deserted their fathers careers for the liberal professions or purely intellectual pursuits they had not been able to afford a few generations before.”

Arendt called this “political ignorance” that blinded the Jews to “the political dangers of antisemitism.” Certainly they understood the costs of social discrimination; what they did not understand was the way this would morph under totalitarianism:

“Whenever equality becomes a mundane fact in itself, without any gauge by which it may be measured or explained, then there is one chance in a hundred that it will be recognized simply as a working principle of a political organization in which otherwise unequal people have equal rights; there are ninety-nine chances that it will be mistaken for an innate quality of every individual, who is “normal” if he is like everybody else and “abnormal” if he happens to be different. This perversion of equality from apolitical into a social concept is all the more dangerous when a society leaves but little space for special groups and individuals, for then their differences become all the more conspicuous.” (55)

To be unequal when equality is understood as equality before the law is a blessing; to be unequal when equality is understood as a social requirement for membership in the political community is quite a curse. The more that Americans attend to income inequality, the more they will worry about Wall Street bankers, certainly; but they also worry about the local inequalities, those they see at work in their own communities. Wall Street is far away for most Americans; yet everyone has a local government, and most Americans can observe that the cars that park in the teachers’ lot are nicer than their own, while simultaneously noting that teachers have shorter days and longer vacations.

For Arendt, the backlash of resentment comes when those with a privilege lose the power to enforce it. The aristocrats tried to keep their privileges without preserving the authority to organize their communities, and they lost their heads; the Ancien Régime gave way to the centrally-administered bureaucracy. Teachers are no longer trusted to evaluate their own success or failure; more and more of their lesson plans are legislated or provided by centralized textbook publishers. Fewer families depend upon teachers than ever before, and those who do have political power don’t trust the public schools in large urban school districts like Chicago, New York City, or Washington, DC. In these and many other ways, the job of teaching K-12 education is being de-professionalized, in large part because we’ve tried to demand that education solve all of our problems and it simply cannot.

Perhaps this comparison is not the right one, but what I notice is that labor solidarity is increasingly exclusive of the least-advantaged. Especially during times of increasing unemployment, I worry that solidarity with laborers will not include those most in need. Unions are no longer primarily sources of solidarity between the lower and middle-class and a means of stepping into the middle-class; now they are sources of solidarity within some elements of the upper-middle class, i.e. those who are well above the median income in the United States. In this sense, public sector labor unions appear to command economic power while failing to achieve the cross-class solidarity that would legitimize that economic power for those who are worse-off. The resentment that emerges, then, appears to be driven by the demographic constitution of the union itself. As Arendt pointed out, rights without the power to protect them are useless: when you need them, they’re not there.

Even as teachers are losing political power, it appears that the political power of labor solidarity has an unfortunate tendency to accumulate among those who already have it. In the US, the people who most need unions don’t have them: Walmart workers; nurses and home health aids; agriculture and construction workers. Meanwhile, the people who least need unions get them: folks with graduates degrees and guns. Soon, perhaps, it will just be those with guns who can prevent the legislative undermining of their rights to collective bargaining.

(Continued in the next post, Public-sector unions as Public Work: The Case for Teachers)

Where are the start-ups in the Liberal Arts?

Yesterday, George Mason University economists Alex Tabarrok and Tyler Cowen announced MRU, a modular course design platform that they’ll be using to offer free and potentially paid courses in economics, online. I’ve learned a lot from their blog since I started reading during the run-up to the financial crisis, and I plan to at least look in on their first course on Developmental Economics. It’s not a massive open online course (MOOC for short), but it’s set up to enable them to produce MOOCs. Experiments in the MOOC future look increasingly promising. But where are the startup and experiments in radical de-digitization?

If you’re a college professor in the humanities, it’s hard not to see the recent flurry of for-profit and online education start-ups as a repudiation of your model for pedagogy. Even as the evidence accumulates that students are most likely to increase their critical thinking skills during an education that focuses on close reading, analytic writing, and high expectations, we see an increasing number of resources devoted to lecturing, a model for which the internet is only slightly better-suited than the VCR was.

At the same time, many in the humanities, myself included, have worried that what drives tuition is primarily administrative rent-seeking. We look at our salaries and at the salaries of the deans, and notice that we’ve been doing more work for less pay over the last few decades even while tuition skyrockets. Meanwhile, newly-minted PhDs flood the workforce looking for jobs. So why then do we continue to work for institutions that have been steering astray? It makes sense to talk about the oppression of the poor and poorly connected, but in what sense are the folks who literally dispense cultural capital capable of being oppressed by their labor conditions?

Oversupply of teachers and undersupply of institutional support for the right kind of teaching: looks like a recipe for a start-up!

The most fertile period for the development of new colleges in the US was the period between the American Revolution and the Civil War, when the 24 colonial colleges that existed before Independence were joined by more than 600 more. Many did not survive, but this was a period of intense educational experimentation and innovation. The land-grant universities aggregated and centralized much of this process. but colleges and universities were still being formed at a rapid clip: there are more than 4000 today. Yet how many new institutions are devoted to the liberal arts? The practices I associate with liberal arts teaching tend to be cultivated on old ivy-covered campuses rather than shiny new startups. Though many schools are called “liberal arts” they do not all make a full-time practice of that pedagogy. Perhaps the problem is demand: one of the oldest colleges, St. John’s, existed before the civil war, and today it adds just 250 new freshmen every year to its Great Books program. Shimer College in Chicago has 111 students total! But I think there’s room for growth (given the evidence and such a small base.)

For all the “massive” promise of MOOCs, they involve considerable capital and startup costs. Yet the teaching profession requires little more than books, paper, pens, and (maybe) trashcans. With folks embracing their own farming, canning, paper-making, and butchering, there ought to be some unmet demand for pedagogical nostalgia of the old schools: discussions under stoa, peripatetic dialogues, and sitting around a table puzzling out the meaning of a text. Maybe the next time one of these would-be online education innovators goes bust, we should give it a shot.

Arendt on Science Fiction

…[S]cience has realized and affirmed what men anticipated in dreams that were neither wild nor idle. What is new is only that one of this country’s most respectable newspapers finally brought to its front page what up to then had been buried in the highly non-respectable literature of science fiction (to which, unfortunately, nobody yet has paid the attention it deserves as a vehicle of mass sentiments and mass desires).

[…] For some time now, a great many scientific endeavors have been directed toward making life also “artificial,” toward cutting the last tie through which even man belongs among the children of nature. It is the same desire to escape from imprisonment to the earth that is manifest in the attempt to create life in the test tube, in the desire to mix “frozen germ plasm from people of demonstrated ability under the microscope to produce superior human beings” and “to alter [their] size, shape and function”; and the wish to escape the human condition, I suspect, also underlies the hope to extend man’s life-span far beyond the hundred-year limit.

This future man, whom the scientists tell us they will produce in no more than a hundred years, seems to be possessed by a rebellion against human existence as it has been given, a free gift from nowhere (secularly speaking), which he wishes to exchange, as it were, for something he has made himself.

The Human Condition, 1958, pp. 2-3