Economics professor Steven Horwitz (St. Lawrence University) writes about how important it is for libertarians to be excellent teachers. "Not everyone will be the next Hayek," he writes. "Most of us will have our greatest impact in the classroom, where the number of students we teach over a career can add up very quickly. That's going to be many more people than the number who read our relatively obscure scholarly articles (though not this column!)." Horwitz explains what it takes to be an excellent teacher: passion, empathy, and love. Young people often leave high school with their heads filled with statist assumptions and cliches. If we ever turn off the road to serfdom and onto the road to liberty, professors like Steve Horwitz will have played a key role because they got their students to question those assumptions and cliches.
First Things editor R.R. Reno takes a look at the ongoing discussion about the connection between ever-increasing costs at academic institutions and the large number of faculty members who do little or no teachng. Their primary purpose seems to be to enhance their school's public profile and keep the undergraduate applications on the rise.
But if you're a student trying to find them in a classroom, good luck: they're getting paid - a lot - to write, write, write. What would be the impact on institutional expenses, Reno asks, if we put 'em to work with even a couple of additional courses per year? A lively comments thread follows.
In “The Library of Babel,” Jorge Luis Borges imagines a gargantuan Library in which are shelved books that together exhaust all possible combinations of letters. Obviously, “[f]or every rational line or forthright statement there are leagues of senseless cacophony, verbal nonsense, and incoherency.” One book simply repeats the letters “MCV” over and over and over while another is gibberish except for the line “O Time thy pyramids.” But since the books exhaust all possible verbal representations, on some shelf in the “unimaginably vast” Library sits your own correct biography, including your death. Unfortunately, the “perhaps infinite” Library also contains a nearly infinite number of slightly or grossly corrupt biographies, and you could never know the difference even should you be so fantastically lucky to find one, a probability that “can be calculated to be zero.” Blogging this past year, I’ve come to feel like one of Borges’ los hombres de la Biblioteca. When I post something on a site that allows them, I receive comments, but often on some other composition, no longer what I had written but slightly or grossly false having been filtered through the hermeneutic apparatus of the commenter. As I read them, like Prufrock, I sigh,
That is not what I meant at all.
That is not it, at all.
A word or phrase is plucked from my essay and with it a commenter embroiders a fabulous if irrelevant tapestry. Or a commenter assumes I have implied something veiled that he alone can perceive. Or a commenter misreads (overlooking “a single letter” sends some readers into a parallel universe). Once there, the commenter soapboxes, snarks, pontificates, rants, or vogues, using the post as an occasion for remixing my words into something uncannily familiar but unquestionably or bizarrely different. It was Karl Popper who said ". . . it is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood . . . .”
When RCA’s mascot dog Nipper heard “his master’s voice” from the trumpet of an Edison-Bell gramophone, he cocked his head in a bemused “huh?” And I hear you, my misreaders, though I sometimes tilt my head like Nipper and wonder, “How did you get that?” and “Where did I say that?” and “What are you talking about?” As Borges’ narrating hombre asks, “You who read me—are you certain you understand my language?” Blog commenters never doubt that they understand the blogger’s language (even better than the blogger). Blog posts and comment threads seem to me like volumes added to what will become a Library of Babel. The signal-to-noise ratio changes constantly and noise is winning. Today, the Internet frequently seems best at producing and disseminating misinformation (which becomes permanent and searchable). Borges’ notes that “infidels” believe the Library of Babel (like entropy or the Internet) may really be a monstrous temple of dreck since its endless collections "affirm all things, deny all things, and confound and confuse all things, like some mad, hallucinating deity.”
Most good teachers had a model. Robert Pinsky had Francis Ferguson; Mark Edmundson had Frank Lears. I was lucky; I had two. My Freshman Comp. teacher was Dr. Idelle Sullens, a Stanford-trained medievalist specializing in 14th century literature. But I was mystified to learn that she had also been a naval officer in World War II and Korea. And rumor had it that she was something called a “Daughter of Bilitis.” But what really fractured my high school brain was seeing Dr. Sullens pull up in her brand new `64 Mustang. That I understood, and it elevated her beyond cool. My disturbing discovery was that one could seem professorial but also be startlingly complicated. Two years later, it was the Lincolnesque Beat Generation scholar Tom Parkinson. One drowsy afternoon in Berkeley’s Wheeler Auditorium, Parkinson recited Ezra Pound’s “The River Merchant’s Wife: A Letter”with tears streaming down his partially-paralyzed cheeks (he had been shot in the face by a student). I was embarrassed but also feared that this moment was profound in a way I might never understand. How could he so reveal himself? It took years to learn that throughout one’s life, good literature deepens and grows, accumulating, preserving, and incorporating intense personal associations. Now there are poems I can’t read aloud without leaking tears. Both are gone now, but the spirits of Sullens and Parkinson still gently remind me to be unexpected, singular, complicated, and exposed so that my students will see that one day they can do the same.
So brain-dead is much of contemporary education that, at first blush, one might be tempted at least to give the benefit of the doubt to a "Brain Education" program in which thousands of New York City public-school students and teachers are participating. Except that this program, which so far has caused the state's taxpayers $400,000, is now alleged to have ties to a cult. Numerous former employees of an organization called Dahn Yoga -- whose founder developed the teachings for Brain Education -- allege the program is controlled by a group that is part of a huge web of interrelated companies that, in the Post's words, "reels people in with lovey-dovey, group-building activities before steadily ratcheting up the pressure" and cons "participants into investing all their time and money in unproven health and healing activities." Moreover, these employees charge that Dahn Yoga's "activities are abusive and grow increasingly devotional over time to the group's founder and spiritual leader, 57-year-old Seung Huen 'Ilchi' Lee." (On the abuse front, note that Dahn Yoga has been sued by the family of Julia Siverls -- a healthy, 41-year-old CUNY professor who died during an endurance hike sponsored by the group. Her family alleged that Siverls had been drugged and made to hike in desert heat with 40 pounds of rocks in her backpack and with little water. Another former Dahn employee who alleged that she was sexually assaulted by Lee settled her case against him.) But how to illustrate Brain Education at work on the ground in New York? At a Bronx elementary school, for example, students were instructed to say, "I love your Power Brain face," to one another and to rap songs with lyrics like "I love my thalamus." You get the picture. More mad pedagogies and pedagogical scams. And more mad neglect of students who desperately need to learn to read and write, among other tried and true paths to real cerebral empowerment.