Saturday, March 24, 2007

The Virtues of Capitalism

Also posted at Liberty and Power:

If you’re interested in exploring the moral foundations of market institutions, I recommend The Bourgeois Virtues by Deirdre McCloskey (University of Chicago Press, 2006). One thing that makes the book unique is that it’s a defense of markets based on the virtue-ethical tradition (the author calls herself an Aristotelian libertarian). So it discusses the influence of institutions on moral character, and vice versa. It’s full of little-known (at least to me) historical, cultural, and literary facts. Another unique feature is that it is a non-individualist defense of the market. This of course could be either a strength or a weakness of her account, depending on your point of view. She characterizes her position as “two and a half cheers for capitalism,” thus going a half-cheer further than the neo-con Irving Kristol, but not as far as I would go. I’ll be on a panel discussion of the book at the Chicago APA on Saturday, April 21. You can read my prepared comments for the panel here. (Also, I just noticed you can find McCloskey's own account of her book here.)

Friday, March 16, 2007

Why You Should Take Notes

In my recent post on students who don't take notes in class I seem to have hit a nerve. One commenter casually referred to my claim, that failure to take notes is (as my high school teachers would have called it back in the sixties) a bad study habit, as "outrageous." There seems to be a huge gap between me and a lot of other people on this issue.

Before I say more, just one autobiographical comment on where I am coming from here. I am making the following comments, not as a teacher, but as a student. Over the years, I have sat in on courses in a number of other departments in the university, in several cases taking all the quizzes and exams, or handing in a seminar paper. For every semester of the past ten years, I have been an MATC student. I play second violin in the Madison Community Orchestra, which technically is an MATC class. And more than just technically, since a conductor is a sort of teacher and an orchestra really is a community of learners (=class). This is why I sound like a know-it-all about being a student. I've been one since the first Eisenhower/Stevenson election, and will remain one until I am too old to get around anymore.

What is the point of taking notes? One of the commenters decries the "Medieval" practice of expecting each of the eighty students in a class to hand-make their own copy of what the prof says, when the instructor (if not too lazy) could make one electronic set of notes and mass-produce them, saving the student a lot of pointless low-tech busywork.

If that were the point of taking notes, I would be against it too. (At least if you have a nice prof who will do it for you.) Well, what is the point? Actually, there is one, and the Medieval handicraft theory misses about half of it.

One of the best things about Madison's Cinematheque series is the opportunity it sometimes gives me to watch a movie in the company of the celebrated David Bordwell. David is one of the founders of UW's fine film studies program and has for a long time had a strong and healthful influence on film studies people throughout the English-speaking parts of the world. (Added later: I just found out that David has a blog on film. Way cool! See blogroll on at left.) The first time I sat next to him, I noticed that (you probably guessed where I was going with this) he was taking notes on these Budd Boetticher westerns we were watching. I should say that he was taking notes with one hand, because with the other hand he was operating a mechanism for counting the shots in the movie. I was sure that if he could have figured out a way to use his feet in watching the film, he would have been operating foot-pedals as well! He was completely, actively involved in watching that movie!

The way David watches a movie is completely different from the way most people do: they sit passively, letting the experience wash over them, or (to switch metaphors) plugging into the artist's dream-world as a superior substitute for their own. The reason for the difference is obvious: for David, film is an academic subject, which he is learning. The normal way of watching a movie is perfectly okay, provided that it is not a subject you are trying to learn.

There are at least two major functions to taking notes. One is to make a record of what you are experiencing at the moment, so that you can consult it later. The product of the note-taking process is a prosthetic memory. This function can of course be fulfilled by a ready-made, prof-written set of notes. (But I would add that if you have a "lazy" prof who, like me, won't provide ready made notes, you have to, have to make your own!)

The other function of taking notes cannot be carried out by prof-supplied notes. This function is fulfilled, not by the product, but by the process of note-taking itself. Everyone who has learned a foreign language knows that the more sense modalities you involve in learning a new word, the better. Just hearing it cannot be enough. You must also say it. And see it, written down. And write it. In addition to involving more senses, this approach also has the great virtue of making you more active, less passive. Learning is an activity. This is the most important single fact about it. It is not a "passivity," a sitting there and being-filled-up with True Dogma.

This is the main reason I am opposed to prof-written notes. The people who do this are encouraging the students to sit there like the normal movie-goer, passively absorbing the experience. This to me is pedagogical suicide. The only sort of subject where this could possibly be appropriate is one that can be taught dogmatically. Here is the truth, shut up and learn it! If there are any such subjects, I guess they would probably be elementary courses in the hard sciences. Even in those fields, though, as soon as you go beyond the elementary level, you must become a scientist and practice science yourself.

But in no case can learning ever be passive. Don't just sit there! Think! Write! Speak! Act!!

One of the virtues of the second, process-based, function of note-taking is that it helps you to focus. One of the anonymous commenters said that if a lecturer is disorganized, note-taking can be distracting and counter-productive. I have found, on the other hand, that note-taking helps me to find the structure in a lecture. When I take notes, I indent subordinate points, creating an outline-like visual structure. The activity of doing this while listening helps to bring out whatever structure (if any!) that there is in a talk. It is like looking at something with a magnifying glass, as opposed to using your naked eyes.

Of course, the fact remains that Anonymous does not have this same experience. S/he also says that s/he is either a thinking machine or a writing machine, not both at once. I have heard this same claim many times over the years.

I answer both these points with an analogy. When you play in an orchestra, you are often told to look up at the conductor. But you find that if you take your eyes off the music on your stand you can't see the notes you are supposed to play -- and may even lose your place! Its a fight between your brain and your fingers for control of your eyes. You can't look at the conductor -- to see changes in dynamics, tempo, and expression -- and also play the right notes!

Is this an argument against watching the conductor? No. It is an argument for practicing, and learning the notes so that you can play and watch at the same time.

My theory about this is that the often heard complaint, I can't think and write at the same time, can be remedied with more practice. For years I felt the same conflict between following the lecturer and taking notes on my laptop. I could handwright-and-think, but I couldn't keyboard-and-think. Recently, I broke through this barrier, and now I find that lap-top note-taking is even more consciousness-raising than the other kind. So if you come to a philosophy department colloquium, you will see me taking notes on my laptop. But it took me a while to get there!

The reason note-taking is important is not the authoritarian one that everyone should write out the precious words of the possessor of True Dogma. Jesus of Nazareth only had four people writing his words. Why should I have eighty? The real reason, or part of it, is the anti-authoritarian idea that learning is not the same thing as passively being taught. Teaching is an activity, true enough. But so is learning.

Footnote: Take a look at the Thomas Eakins painting at the top of this page. It shows Prof. Gross lecturing to the doctors of the future. Behind him are two people. One is taking notes. The other is not. Would you like to have your brain your heart cut into by someone who did not believe in taking notes in med school? ("Let's see, where was that artery, anyway?")

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Images of Tehran, Iran

This link was posted by Rod Long over at "The Austro-Athenian Empire." His comment: Look before you bomb. Pass the word, O my brother and sisters!

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Amazing Grace!

I'm referring to the movie, not to the perennially popular hymn from which it gets its name. Though if you love the song, as I do, that is reason enough to see this movie. It is featured in it at least four times, sung solo, played in the orchestral music track, and finally and most inspiringly, played on bagpipes at the hero's funeral.

Anyone who loves freedom, hates injustice, or wants to think about how a person should go about changing the world for the better, should see this film. It is the story of perhaps the greatest champion of liberty most people have never heard of, William Wilberforce. It was largely thanks to this man's efforts that England became, in 1833, the first nation on the planet to ever make slavery illegal throughout its territories.

The movie is well made and powerful, but it does contain two distortions of history, one innocent and rather curious, the other more understandable and in my opinion not so innocent.

The first was this. The film proceeds as if Wilberforce's great victory, and the culmination of his struggle, was the abolition of the slave trade in 1807. In fact the greatest and most amazing victory was, as I've already said, the abolition, not of the slave trade but of slavery itself in 1933. That was also the year he died. By that time ill health and old age had forced him to withdraw from public life, but he did deserve, and was given at the time, much of the credit for that triumph. The film gives the impression, in a brief epilogue statement projected on the screen, that after 1807 he dropped slavery as a cause and devoted himself to a miscellaneous handful of other, respectable-sounding causes. This of course is false.

That epilogue is part of the other, not-so-innocent distortion. The film-makers insert two or three details into the film that are obviously intended to associate this great human being with their own left-of-center political views. At one point, one character mentions that one of Wilberforce's causes is "free schools," giving the impression that the charity school he helped to found was a tax-supported institution. As far as I know, it was not. In addition, the film says in the epilogue that one of the causes he devoted himself after 1807 was that of fighting "for medical care." The effect is, absurdly, to associate poor Wilberforce, who is long dead and cannot defend himself, with the cause of socialized medicine today.

The fact of the matter is that William Wilberforce was in no way, shape, or form a leftist. He was extremely conservative. He was so conservative he would make Rush Limbaugh look like Ralph Nader. For instance, the most important cause on which he spent his post-1807 efforts was his campaign to force the East India Company to include religious "instruction" in its corporate activities, in order to bring "the light of Christianity" to India. He was that conservative.

I don't blame the makers of this otherwise fine film for omitting this embarrassing fact from their edifying narrative. I would have done the same thing. But there is a difference between omitting a fact and covering it with a politically self-serving anachronistic lie.

Still, there are indeed lessons to be learned from the film, lessons that are still very important today and that can be derived from the aspects of the film, as far as I know the overwhelming bulk of it, that are historically accurate. As Stephen W. Carson points out over at the Mises Blog, they include the following:
  • The abolitionists are radical but patient.
  • Gradualism is not an aid to attaining abolition, it is deployed to slow it down.
  • The fundamental argument is a moral one, based on an appeal to natural law.
  • The abolitionists carefully document and publicize the violence and brutality of the system.
  • Public opinion can win even against massive entrenched interests.
  • War is a strategic obstacle to liberation and a support for entrenched interests.
I would add that there is one more edifying lesson, one that the film slightly obscures by making Wilberforce look too much like "us." Freedom has been won by people who come from many different philosophies, religions, and moralities. Wilberforce's evangelical Christianity is a point of view that many of us think of as repressive. In his case, at least as far as the slavery issue is concerned, it was the opposite. There are many roads to liberty.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

The Root of the Problem: Bad Study Habits!

A student emailed me yesterday saying that, reading over the reports of the recent flap about Len Kaplan's legal process class, the first thing that struck him, with the wildly conflicting reports of what Len said, was "the absolute crappiness" of the notes that people must have been taking in that class. This I think was a very astute comment, pointing up an aspect of the case that had escaped everyone else's notice. It was even more astute than he could have realized. One of the two eye-witness student accounts of the now-notorious lecture casually mentions that no one in the class, a class of over twenty people, was taking any notes at all! If they all had been taking notes, this whole you-said-this, no-I-didn't controversy might never have happened. The cause of it all may have been, not so much racism, as what my highschool teachers used to call "bad study habits." If the people there could have consulted their notes, there may have been nothing to argue about.

The student account goes on to explain that the reason that no one was taking any notes was the "informal" nature of the class.

The first thing I want to say to this is: Huh?

I don't see how a class could be that informal. This was, after all, a class. In a university. It had no point other than to change your thinking (in a good way) in the future. This is something it can't do unless you can remember it. And you know that you will forget 99% of what is happening at any moment unless you record it somehow. So everybody was treating the class as if they would have no need to remember what happened there. And yet.... Sorry. Does not compute.

My students know that this is one of my pet peeves. Why is it that so many students do not take notes any longer? Has something happened to render such behavior rational? What on earth could it be? It isn't that people have discovered some new, better way of remembering things, other than writing them down. There isn't one. So what gives?

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Prof. Kaplan Explains Himself

At last, after two weeks of angry mass meetings, bizarre accusations, and very embarrassing world-wide media coverage, Leonard Kaplan has issued his own account of what he said and what he meant. You can read it here. I will add a comment of my own about it, below, later on.

Added Later: I guess the first thing to say is that I, for one, find his account substantially very believable. Admittedly, he has a motive to make what he said sound good, but it is also true that he would likely be better at remembering what he said than anyone else present because -- he was the one who said it! Also, if you look at the two known ear-witness accounts (both of which can be found on this blog) and the second-hand report in Ms. Moua's email, you can see how these other accounts could indeed represent impressions, mis-impressions, and distorted rumors of what he said, even if what he said is exactly as he represents it here.

In the article in yesterday's Badger Herald on Kaplan's statement, the only one of his accusers who could be reached for comment said that they were "disappointed" with it. What is the nature of this disappointment, I wonder? Probably, they wanted him to agree that he had said the absurd things that had been attributed to him, and apologize for having done so. If you think someone has said something that you find offensive, and they say that they didn't say it and don't agree with it, why isn't that the end of the matter? If the statement was not an epithet or a personal insult, why would they be lying about it? Do you think David Duke ever denied having anti-black or antisemitic opinions? What for? He thinks those opinions are true! I don't understand.

One more thing. Prof. Kaplan says in his statement that his case does not involve academic freedom, because he has been misunderstood. I disagree with the underlying principle here, which seems to be that academic freedom would only be involved here if he actually were a racist. Being misunderstood is not censorship, and he has merely been misunderstood.

I think he is wrong about that. Throughout history, attempts at suppressing expressions of opinion often take the form of "misunderstandings." In the old Soviet Union, people who were put away for weird, impossible crimes like "Trotskyite-fascist conspiracy" were actually "guilty" of much less serious offenses, such as telling a joke making fun of Comrade Stalin's policies. The weird charges relieved the Communist authorities of the necessity of actually discussing those policies in public. If you say something that offends me, and I give an exaggerated account of it, I no longer have to do the work of dealing with what you actually said. This is true, even if the exaggeration is unconscious and, in a way, perfectly sincere. The present case could very well be an academic freedom case if the accusations are motivated (if only unconsciously) by real offense at what he actually did say. Or if they tend to deflect people in the future from saying anything that could lead to the same sort of misunderstanding.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Comments on the "Open Letter on the Leonard Kaplan Case"

There are two aspects of the "open letter" that I should say something about.

First, it says nothing about the facts of the case itself. It only talks in very abstract terms about a certain "philosophical" aspect of it. As a result it, is rather bland. No bite to it. This is unfortunate, but inevitable under the circumstances. Earlier drafts did have comments on the facts themselves, but as we (the signers) argued about it, we gradually took every one of them out. The main reason was simple. To date, Len Kaplan has not come forth and given his account of the situation in public. In my view, this has become one of the most regrettable aspects of this case, and it is ticking a lot of people off. But it's what we have to work with. It made it imp0ssible for us as a group to comment on the rights and wrongs of the case in detail.

Second, the letter says very little about the obligations of faculty to conduct themselves in a way that is respectful and not insulting. As I have said, here, this is of course the other half of the equation. The letter focuses on the don't-try-to-intimidate-and-silence-the-faculty side of the issue, rather than the facutly-should-take-care-not-to-gratuitously-offend side of it. Obsessing about one side of these issues is what CAFAR does. You might say, it's our job, to be obsessed, just as it is the job of the student activists to emphasize the other side of the situation. This is as it should be, as long as the people on each side listen to those on the other and try, in their daily lives, to embody both sorts of values as well as they can.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Open Letter on the Leonard Kaplan Case

What follows is a letter to the university community and the world beyond from a campus group to which I belong, the Committee for Academic Freedom and Rights (CAFAR). I will add a comment about it later, when I get time.

The Committee for Academic Freedom and Rights at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has followed with deepening concern the process and news coverage surrounding the accusations by some students against Professor Leonard Kaplan of the Law School. Given that Professor Kaplan has not publicly commented on what he said in class, we refrain from commenting on any other details of the case at this time. That said, it is important to comment on a fundamental principle that is at the heart of the controversy. Namely, academic freedom.

There is a distinct possibility that the emotion and pressures surrounding this case—especially after the public meeting at the law school the evening of March 1—will have a chilling effect on honest and good faith discussion of racial and cultural issues in class and on campus. While good teaching requires that students be treated with respect, undue sensitivity and fear of accusations can cause professors and instructors to steer clear of controversy or uncomfortable truths that need to be discussed and faced if we are to improve as a society. Such pursuit of truth is the university's special charter and reason for existence.

Nothing in this statement is intended to justify the use of gratuitous offense or personal insult as an element of public discussion, whether inside or outside the classroom, and whether directed from faculty members to students or from students to members of the faculty. The university must be a place in which no member of the community has reason to fear expressing his or her ideas and feelings honestly and sincerely, within the bounds of civil discourse, very broadly defined. The university cannot accept efforts by any members of its community to silence others through intimidation, just as the university cannot accept the use of personal insult or denigrating stereotypes in the presentation of arguments.

There is a fundamental distinction between causing offense gratuitously and invidiously, and causing offense as the by-product of the fair-minded pursuit of truth or constructive criticism. A university of the caliber of UW-Madison, with its long history and tradition of protecting academic freedom in the "fearless sifting and winnowing of ideas" for the pursuit of truth, must take this distinction seriously, lest it surrenders its intellectual integrity.

We fear, however, that the crucial distinction between gratuitous offense and provocative argument has been lost in the public furor over the Kaplan case. We are dismayed at the Law School’s public response to this dispute, as it has addressed only the school's commitment to sensitivity and diversity, while saying nothing about that institution's fiduciary obligation to train minds to grapple with various sides of controversial and difficult issues. Without serious consideration of the importance and meaning of academic freedom on campus among the members of the university community, how can freedom prevail in the face of pressures from both left and right to make universities conform to one or another model of political correctness? We urge that the principles of academic freedom and fairness be a serious part of our community's response to the allegations that have been made concerning Professor Kaplan.

Signed by members of the Committee for Academic Freedom and Rights, UW-Madison

Ann Althouse, Mary Anderson, Anatole Beck, Michael Chamberlain, Donald Downs (President), Michael Fox, Robert Frykenberg, Lee Hansen, Lester Hunt, Larry Kahan, Anatoly Khazanov, Kenneth Mayer, Marshall Onellion, Dietram Scheufelle, Howard Schweber, John Sharpless, Kenneth Thomas, Steven Underwood (Legal Counsel)

Thursday, March 01, 2007

I Stand Corrected on the Leonard Kaplan Case

First of all, I would like to thank the people who posted on the comments page of my original post on L'Affaire Kaplan. Though they vigorously disagreed, they expressed themselves with civility and made some good points. One person, writing anonymously, said something I think I should put in the foreground by featuring it here. The reason is that it requires that I qualify or take back some of the things I said. Here is what anonymous said.

FYI, the students did not first go public with their complaints. They sent a letter to the Dean. The Dean asked their permission to share the letter with Professor Kaplan, which they granted. Once shown the letter, Kaplan then spoke with the students but, in that exchange, appears to have left them more upset rather than less upset. It was only after these events took place that the students chose to organize a Wednesday night meeting, which is the first time that this matter went public. It seems a shame that the private conversation between Professor Kaplan and the students was not managed in a way that led to this being settled at that time. Even with all of that, the students have never called for censorship or discipline of Professor Kaplan. They have consistently sought a venue to teach the law school community about today's Hmong community.
In "Thing Two" in my original post, I said that KaShia Moua (and by implication the other students who initiated this public discussion) should have figured (as I did and do) that there must be some sort of misunderstanding here. Now of course it appears that they did talk to Prof. Kaplan and for whatever reason were not satisfied with what he said to them. This makes it difficult, if not impossible, (for me, at the moment) to second-guess what they did in going public with the "racism" charge. If they did some checking and still believed what they said, it's pretty hard to say that they shouldn't have acted on it.

It also makes me a good deal less sure (Things Four and Five) that Dean Davis failed to handle this well. He did try to start a productive dialogue, and I applaud that. I just wish he had said something publicly about the importance of freedom of speech and academic freedom at some point.

I am tempted to go back to my original statements and silently revise them, but that would be a little too George Orwell, wouldn't it? (Down the memory hole! Never happened!) I hope this correction is good enough.

There is a meeting at the Law School about this incident this evening at 7:00. I will attend at least part of it and try to find time to blog about it afterward.

Written later: I later heard that this meeting would just be another meeting between university representatives and students, this time to arrange some sort of meeting with the Hmong community outside the university. Figuring that this would not be an informational meeting, I missed it. (Actually, I went home, exhausted after the work I'd done for a talk by Lawrence Harrison, fell asleep, woke up at midnight to get ready for class, ... it was a busy day is what I'm saying.) But now it sounds, from one of the comments on this post (see below), like some new information might have come out at this meeting after all.