Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Low IQ or Low Motivation?

There's a determinist line of thinking, in regards to education, which emphasizes that there's a limit to how much someone can be educated, and that that limit is set by the innate intelligence of the person. That level of innate intelligence is often considered to be measured by IQ. And there is, as with so many things, some basis for this. IQ tests can diagnose lack of mental ability, and lack of mental ability can mark out certain limits to how much education can accomplish.

However, it turns out that IQ tests (and many other measures of achievement) don't just measure innate intelligence, they also measure whether the person taking the test bothers to try hard enough to get it right. Paul Tough quotes some fascinating research along those lines in this except from his book How Children Succeed.
Consider a couple of experiments done decades ago involving IQ and M&M’s. In the first test, conducted in Northern California in the late 1960s, a researcher named Calvin Edlund selected 79 children between the ages of 5 and 7, all from “low-middle class and lower-class homes.” The children were randomly divided into an experimental group and a control group. First, they all took a standard version of the Stanford-Binet IQ test. Seven weeks later, they took a similar test, but this time the kids in the experimental group were given one M&M for each correct answer. On the first test, the two groups were evenly matched on IQ. On the second test, the IQ of the M&M group went up an average of 12 points—a huge leap.

A few years later, two researchers from the University of South Florida elaborated on Edlund’s experiment. This time, after the first, candy-less IQ test, they divided the children into three groups according to their scores on the first test. The high-IQ group had an average IQ score on the first test of about 119. The medium-IQ group averaged about 101, and the low-IQ group averaged about 79. On the second test, the researchers offered half the children in each IQ category an M&M for each right answer, just as Edlund had; the others in each group received no reward. The medium-IQ and high-IQ kids who got candy didn’t improve their scores at all on the second test. But the low-IQ children who were given M&M’s for each correct answer raised their IQ scores to about 97, almost erasing the gap with the medium-IQ group.
The M&M studies were a major blow to the conventional wisdom about intelligence, which held that IQ tests measured something real and permanent—something that couldn’t be changed drastically with a few candy-covered chocolates. They also raised an important and puzzling question about the supposedly low-IQ children: Did they actually have low IQs or not? Which number was the true measure of their intelligence: 79 or 97?

This is the kind of frustrating but tantalizing puzzle that teachers face on a regular basis, especially teachers in high-poverty schools. You’re convinced that your students are smarter than they appear, and you know that if they would only apply themselves, they would do much better. But how do you get them to apply themselves? Should you just give them M&M’s for every correct answer for the rest of their lives? That doesn’t seem like a very practical solution. And the reality is that for low-income middle-school students, there are already tremendous rewards for doing well on tests—not immediately and for each individual correct answer, but in the long term. If a student’s test scores and GPA through middle and high school reflect an applied IQ of 97 instead of 79, he is much more likely to graduate from high school and then college and then to get a good job—at which point he can buy as many bags of M&M’s as he wants.

But as every middle-school teacher knows, convincing students of that logic is a lot harder than it seems.
Another study, which tracked high school and college students over subsequent decades, and included a test which in effect measured the willingness of the taker to take the time to get easy but tedious questions right, found that this motivation to do well even on a seemingly low reward test was just about as good a predictor of success later in life as measured IQ.

You would think this would be a hopeful sign: that many people who might otherwise appear to be destined to do poorly can do better if only they can be motivated to exert themselves. But as the article describes, attempts to motivate people (outside the confines of offering candy for answers on a fairly short test) are often surprisingly unsuccessful. There are already very strong incentives to try hard in school and in life, the problem is that the rewards are distant.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Fish Heads, for fun and mental profit

I know that there are philosophical songs and then there are philosophical songs, but around here few pieces of music have occasioned as much discussion as Fish Heads, by Barnes and Barnes.

The list of conditions for what is or is not a fish head have led to great speculation as to which of our acquaintance may actually be a fish head in disguise.

For example, here are some of the conditions of fish headery:
a) they don't wear sweaters;
b) they don't play baseball;
c) they're not good dancers;
d) they don't play drums.

Some of the youngsters were a bit worried that Daddy might be a fish head, then, until it was pointed out that he does, occasionally, wear sweaters. In fact, most of us make the non-fish head category by virtue of our positive association with sweaters, although Julia is a good dancer, Jack has played the drums, and I have played baseball. Any one of these is sufficient to establish non-fish head status, but we like to be doubly protected.

What are the positive conditions of being a fish head?
a) roly-poly;
b) in the morning, happy and laughing;
c) in the evening, floating in the stew;
d) get into movies free;
e) can't talk.

Fortunately, c) bars Baby from being a fish head, although her dinnertime habits make one question.

But now, examine this statement: "Roly-poly fish heads are never seen drinking cappuccino in Italian restaurants with Oriental women (yeah)." There's a lot to unpack here. Do fish heads never drink cappuccino, or is the cappuccino ban only in effect when they are at Italian restaurants? What if they're at an Italian restaurant with Polish women? Or Oriental men? We're not given enough information to make broader statements, but with the help of Graph Jam, we put the statement into the form of a Venn diagram.

Let me anticipate correction by pointing out for myself that yes, I misspelled "cappuccino".
So we can say with certainty that if one meets all three of these conditions, one is definitely not a fish head. But wait! What happens if one meets all these conditions invisibly? After all, non-fish headery is contingent on being seen doing all these things.

Obviously, there are layers of richness here that we have yet to unpack.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

On The Nature of the Liberal Arts, Broadly Understood

While I haven't been writing about it as much as I'd like, I've been thinking a lot about education and higher education in particular, in reaction to Bearing's series on Post-Secondary Education.

One of my difficulties with the whole line of discussion is that I don't think that college, or education more generally, should be thought of primarily in terms of return on investment or preparation for making a living. Certainly, it can be useful for that. College has become something of a signaling mechanism in our society for "this is an educated, able and adaptable person with a certain ability to stick to something and self motivate (at least enough to graduate)", and as such people with college degrees have doors open to them which people without can find it harder to open. However, despite that, and despite the ever-increasing drum beat of "you must go to college to get a good job" and it's unrealistic (and thus dangerous) cousin "if you go to college, you will be sure to get a good job", I think the purpose of a college education ought to be to become a more fully educated person in the sense traditionally described by the Liberal Arts.

Hopefully, a few readers have just sat up and thought: "Wait a minute, are you saying that only a liberal arts education fulfills the goals of going to college? What about math and science? Should everyone be liberals arts majors?"

No, I'm certainly not excluding math and science. And indeed, I think one of the problems with the way that we often think these days about "liberal arts" and the nature of education is that we tend far too much to equate "liberal arts" exclusively with fields such as languages, literature, history and philosophy.

As one generally reads in a brief essay on the topic, the term "liberal arts" goes back to Roman antiquity, and designates the arts appropriate to a free man. Further, the term "art" had a meaning more along the lines of "craft" or "skill". So the liberal arts comprise the crafts and skills appropriate to a free man. Brandon, I thought, summed this up well at Siris a while back:
The word indicates a kind of craft; it's a productive skill, and one who learns a liberal art becomes an artisan, shaping, and making, and adapting things to good and useful and beautiful ends. Liberal arts are distinguished in one way from servile arts, which are devoted to making oneself useful to other people, and in another way from the manual arts, which make material products (handiworks, things that can be manufactured, things made and shaped by hand). Thus liberal arts are the crafts that involve making those intellectual and imaginative constructions that assist each person in thinking and determining his or her own ends as a free individual. The liberal arts in this sense are literally the arts of free reason.

And it cannot be emphasized enough: they make things, and these things, along with the products of all the other arts, are what make up the material of civilization.
You get a sense of this looking at the traditional list of liberal arts. You have the Trivium which move from the more mechanical to the more abstract: Grammar, Rhetoric, Logic

The Quadrivium have an opposite progression from the more abstract to the more applied: Mathematics, Geometry, Music, Astronomy Especially once one keeps in mind that to the ancient and medieval authors who compiled this list of seven, music was at least as much a science as an art, being heavily based on mathematics and conceptions of pattern and proportion (in a conception of the universe where everything from the movement of the heavenly spheres to the operation of the human body was understood in terms of pattern and proportion.) Astronomy included observational astronomy (though an awful lot of what we now know about the universe was then unknown) but also involved all of the measures and calculations that people performed using the movement of the stars and planets: navigation, calculation of orbits, predictions as to conjunctions and eclipses, etc.

We don't live in a medieval world anymore, and many aspects of our understanding of the world have changed. I'm not here to present a plan for education based on somehow applying the "Seven Liberal Arts" to modern education. Rather, I think it might be useful to think a bit about what made these the arts of a free man (as opposed to service arts or manual arts) and how we might apply that concept to our modern world.

At the most basic level, it seems to me that these liberal arts have in common that they are more general learned skills that emphasize understanding and adaptability. They are not trained skills suited only to accomplishing a specific sort of task.

In more modern terms, an understanding of subjects such as: mathematics, statistical analysis, relational database structure, or a programming language (and the more conceptional background of what a programming language is and how it works) would fall in the category of liberals arts. They are adaptable skills rooted in general knowledge which a "freeman" might well use in the process of building civilization.

A "servile" approach to these same areas of knowledge could be taken, if instead of focusing on an education which is general and adaptable, one focused on training very specific ways of dealing with very specific situations. To draw on another area: Learning to express oneself clearly and persuasively in writing is a liberal art. Medical transcription is a matter of training. This does not, of course, mean that medical transcription is something unworthy of being done. It's simply that learning to do it is a matter of training. Perhaps someone who has pursued a liberal arts education would end up taking training to work in medical transcription. The liberal arts background might be of any amount of help to the person who becomes a medical transcriber, but it is not the business of the liberal arts to train someone in so specialized a field.

Now clearly, by this sort of definition "liberal arts" is a very wide range of subjects. I don't think it likely that in our increasingly complex world someone would be likely to master all of them, nor is that needed. Breadth is certainly desirable, and I think it fits well with the understanding of the "skills of a free man" that I'm describing here, but different people have different aptitudes, and I don't think its necessary or even desirable to try to push everyone pursuing a liberal arts type of education to master everything that might be thought of as a liberal art. What I do think is important to consider, however, in thinking about education in relation to the liberal arts is the approach which emphasizes a general though thorough understanding of a subject, and the adaptability which comes with that, as compared to the very task-specific kind of learning which is more properly termed "training".

Monday, September 24, 2012

Rating Party Platforms

Ranking high in the well-done-quixotic-endeavors category, Brandon of Siris rates the GOP, Democratic, Libertarian and Green party platforms on all aspects other than politics, offering categories for judging including: Preliminaries, Preamble, Organization, Internet Accessibility and General Informativeness. Not being a partisan hack like me, Brandon is well suited to this task and pulls it off with aplomb. I was desperately tempted to post his conclusion and award for best platform, but really, in all fairness, you need to click through in order to get that.

...We also see the usual difference between Republican and Democratic party platforms, regardless of which party is in power: the Republicans tell us how great they are, and the Democrats tell us how bad the Republicans are. This joint effort to insist that every election is all about the Republican Party is one of the clear proofs that bipartisan cooperation is not dead in this country.
And here we see the real dividing lines between the parties: does the platform have a statement of principles or values? Libertarians have principles, but no values. Greens have values, but no principles. Democrats and Republicans have neither principles nor values. This is a step back for the Republicans, who in previous platforms would list values, even though they were somewhat random and had nothing to do with anything else in the platform.
The Republicans have the best cover sheet for the PDF version, but it was not a heavily competitive year for cover sheets -- the PDF for the Democrats has no cover sheet at all, the Greens have no easily accessible PDF, and the Libertarians, while jazzing things up with a little blue and gold, can't really compete. The Republican cover sheet is, however, very, very red.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Surfing With Mel, and a giveaway!

The Korrectiv has spawned its latest project: Surfing with Mel by Matthew Lickona. It's available as a $0.99 e-book on Amazon, so unless you're not ready for the prospect of Mel Gibson ranting at God and man with Mel-level profanity, what are you waiting for?
On April 11, 2012, published a private letter from screenwriter Joe Eszterhas to director Mel Gibson. The letter chronicled, in alarming detail, their disastrous attempt to collaborate on a film version of the Biblical Book of Maccabees. The media flare-up that followed focused on Eszterhas’ characterization of Gibson as an angry, Jew-hating sociopath, but largely ignored the spiritual crisis at the story’s heart. Using the letter as a map, Surfing with Mel sets out to find some meaning within the madness, and winds up outlining a darkly satirical and deeply profane portrait of two men at war with each other, with their pasts, and with God. 
About the Korrektiv Press series Lives of Famous Catholics: Writing in his journal about the celebrities of his day, the author John Cheever observed that "we have a hierarchy of demigods and heroes; they are a vital part of our lives and they should be a vital part of our literature." We agree, which is why the Lives of Famous Catholics series seeks to explore the life of faith by the light of the famous.
Remember how we went to Wisconsin on summer vacation and participated in the hysterically funny world-premiere reading of this project? If they gave out Oscars for Best Reading of a Short Story in Script Form around a Citronella Candle in the Wilds of Wisconsin, that evening definitely would have netted a Best Actor nomination for the fabulous Mr. O'Brien, who does the best Mel Gibson impression ever, and Best Supporting Actor for Darwin as Joe Eszterhas, Mel's long-suffering collaborator. (In the Art Imitating Life department, I read Joe's wife, Naomi.)

In honor of those two roles, we're going to give away two free copies to lucky commenters, so leave a comment to be entered into the drawing, and we'll have the kids pull the winning names from a hat tomorrow morning. Or you could just pony up the $0.99 and start laughing now.

(And over at The Korrectiv blog, the clever commenters are already up to their usual literary hijinks churning out a sequel.)

Will Money Make Everyone Virtuous?

One of the many divides among modern Catholics is between what we might call the "moralizers" and the "justice seekers". "Moralizers" are those who emphasize the importance of teaching people moral laws and urging them to abide by them. "Justice seekers" seek to mitigate various social evils (poverty, lack of access to health care, joblessness, etc.) and believe that if only these social evils are reduced, this will encourage people to behave better.

Moralizers tend to criticize the justice seekers by pointing out that following moral laws is apt to alleviate a lot of the social evils that worry the justice seekers, arguing, for example, that if one finishes high school, holds a job and gets married before having children, one is far less likely to be poor than if one violates these norms.

Justice seekers reply that the moralizers are not taking into account all the pressures there work upon the poor and disadvantaged, and argue that it's much more effective to better people's condition than to moralize at them (or try to pass laws to restrict their actions) because if only social forces weren't forcing people to make bad choices, they of course wouldn't do so.

(I'm more of a moralizer myself, but I think that we moralizers still need to take the justice seeker critique into account in understanding where people are coming from and what they're capable of.)

One area in which the justice seeker approach seems to come into particular prominence is the discussion of abortion. We often hear politically progressive Catholics argue that the best way to reduce abortions is not to attempt to ban or restrict them, but rather to reduce poverty and make sure that everyone has access to health care. There's an oft quoted sound bite from Cardinal Basil Hume (Archbishop of Westminster) to this effect:
“If that frightened, unemployed 19-year-old knows that she and her child will have access to medical care whenever it’s needed, she’s more likely to carry the baby to term. Isn’t it obvious?”

You'd think that it was obvious, but I'm suspicious of the idea that having more money or resources makes us better or less selfish people (an idea which strikes me as smacking of a certain spiritual Rousseauian quality that doesn't take fallen human nature into account) so I thought it would be interesting to see if there's any data on this.

I was not able to find data on the relationship of abortion to health insurance, but I was able to find data on the relation of abortion to poverty, and it turns out that the Cardinal, and conventional wisdom, are wrong.

It's often pointed out that a disproportionate number of abortions are procured by women living below 200% of the poverty line (that's about $22,000/yr for a single person). This causes people to conclude that poor women are more likely to abort because they can't afford a child. As it turns out, however, poor women are less likely to abortion an unwanted pregnancy than non-poor women.

The numbers I'm looking at are from this study by the Guttmacher Institute (the research arm of Planned Parenthood -- hardly an anti-abortion source) which looks at pregnancies and abortions for unmarried women aged 20-29 from 2001 to 2008.

The study looks at unmarried women in three economic groups: Those living below the poverty line (around $11,000 per year), those living between the poverty line and 200% of the poverty line ($11,000 to $22,000), and those making more than 200% of the poverty line. For convenience, I'm going to look at the two most extreme groups, those living below the poverty line and those who make more than 200% of the poverty line. The middle group falls pretty much in the middle on all statistics.

The first thing you see is that poor women get pregnant a lot more than better off women. The pregnancy rate for unmarried women living below the poverty line was 277 pregnancies per 1000 women in 2008. For unmarried women making more than 2x the poverty line, that rate was 56 per 1000 women. So poor women are five times more likely to get pregnant.

Now, the first thing that most people would guess is: Poor women must have a lot more unintended pregnancies. They can't afford birth control, or they hadn't had good sex education, or for some other social reason they're not able to control their pregnancies.

Well, it turns out that for unmarried women between 20 and 29 a majority of pregnancies are unintended, but poor unmarried women have a lower percentage of unintended pregnancies than better off unmarried women. 67% of pregnancies of 20-29 year old unmarried women living below the poverty line were unintended in 2008 while 73% of pregnancies of unmarried women making more than 200% of the poverty line were unintended.

Even so, surely a woman with more means is going to be more able to support an unplanned child than a truly poor women, right? Well, she may be more able, but that's not, on average, what she chooses to do. Unmarried women living below the poverty line aborted 48% of their unintended pregnancies in 2008. Unmarried women making more than 200% of the poverty line aborted 62% of their unintended pregnancies in 2008. So an unmarried woman living at more than 2x the poverty line is 30% more likely to decide to abort an unplanned pregnancy than an unmarried woman living below the poverty line.

Unmarried women are far more likely to abort unintended pregnancies (51% aborted) than married women (17% aborted), but unfortunately the Guttmacher report only provides income breakdowns of unmarried women, not married women. However, that does at least mean that the data we're looking at is not thrown off by the fact that a much greater proportion of poor women are unmarried than better off women.

So it turns out that the conventional wisdom is wrong on all fronts. A smaller percentage of pregnancies are unplanned for poor women than for better off women. And a smaller percentage of poor women who have unplanned pregnancies abortion than better off women. The only reason why a disproportionate number of abortions are obtained by poor women is that they get pregnant far more frequently than better off women.

What this underlines is something that should be fairly obvious to anyone with a Christian understanding of fallen human nature: Having more money and resources does not make us better people. Those who are better off are just as capable of doing wrong than those who are less well off. Indeed, in this case, it appears that people who are better off are more likely to do wrong than those who are less well off.

Does this mean that we shouldn't work to alleviate poverty or to make sure people are able to get the medical attention they need? Of course not. But this conventional wisdom that people only do wrong things because they're not well off is simply not the case.

UPDATE: Okay, I'm realizing that due to some odd formatting on the Guttmacher study, I hadn't realized that their data is split into two halves. First they provide overall rates of pregnancy, unintended pregnancy and abortion for all women 20-29 and break that data down into married and unmarried women. However, all of the demographic breakdowns which are provided in the lower section of each table are for unmarried women only. So the percentage of pregnancies which are unintended and the percentage of unintended pregnancies that end in abortion which I quote in the article are for unmarried women only. I've edited the article appropriately, but am leaving this update separately to make the changes clear.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

"Restless for Good Art"

The Dominicana blog sums up why I haven't been interested in seeing any of the new breed of highly-commercialized Christian films
If this is the dynamic of art—reaching into reality, being changed by it, and revealing that transformative truth to others—then we can understand why books, films, or paintings that only serve as a vehicle for spreading an idea fail as art. Formally speaking, they are more akin to propaganda, even if they use the material of art. Writing a song because I want more people to buy my brand of toothpaste may be a valuable commercial move, but it is not art. Making a movie because I want more people to acknowledge St. Augustine as the greatest doctor of the Latin Church may be laudable catechesis, but it won’t turn into art.
I know I won't be seeing Restless Heart, the movie about St. Augustine -- the film seems to have re-written his life as a simplistic thriller.
We can learn a lot about the problems of Catholic filmmaking from Christian Duguay’s new film Restless Heart, a dramatized account of St. Augustine’s life and conversion. As a film,Restless Heart has its high points, even if in general it suffers from poor pacing and uninspiring dialogue. As a biography of a great theologian, the film fares worse; recognizing the difficulties in staging most of Augustine’s life (How does one film a gradual conversion from Skepticism to Neo-platonism?), Restless Heart blithely invents a more exciting history for him, turning the troubled young professor of rhetoric into a hotshot lawyer with a devil-may-care attitude who, after cooperating in a massacre of Milanese Christians, miraculously converts and triumphs over all his adversaries, notably including a scene in which all the heretical Donatist bishops in North Africa agree that the Roman Church has the true faith, and seal their conversion with group hugs.
Drama springs from change, which makes the Christian life of constant change and conversion uniquely dramatic. But when the primary "Christian" paradigm of art becomes one of trivializing and sensationalizing Christianity to fit into a mass-market package, then the true interior drama of being transformed through the renewal of our minds (Rom. 12:2) is lost.

Monday, September 17, 2012

I'm On A Bus

Oh wow, I've never had any desire to learn Dutch, until now:

Rebekka from Denmark, tell us what this says, and how we can hitch a ride on this wonderbus.

h/t Korrectiv

NB: I leave it to stand as evidence of Homer nodding, but Rebekka reminds me that Danish, not Dutch, is spoken in Denmark. Yeah. I knew that.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Benefits of Trade

A quick economics education link for your Friday: Mark Bellemare of Duke University writes about an in-classroom exercise to demonstrate how trade "makes everyone better off".

The Trading Game is pretty simple. Before the start of every semester I have to teach principles of microeconomics, I look at the number of students enrolled in my class, and I head out to the nearest dollar store to buy an equal amounts of trinkets.
I go around allocating trinkets to students at random.

I then ask students to assign a value to the trinket they have just received ranging from 0 to 10, with higher values meaning cooler trinkets.

We then go around the room recording those values. Because students often bring their laptops to lecture, it is easy to find a volunteer to record those values, but you can have a teaching assistant do it. Once all values are recorded, total welfare (i.e., the sum total of the values students assign to their trinkets) is announced.

I then tell students that they have five minutes to trade voluntarily between themselves, insisting on the fact that trades must be voluntary (i.e., no stealing) and cannot involve dynamic aspects, or credit (i.e., no “I’ll give you my cool dinosaur if you give me your awful trinket and you buy drinks on Friday night.”)

Once students are done trading, we once again go around the room recording the values they assign to their trinkets. Once all values are recorded, total welfare is announced once again.

And that’s usually where the magic happens. When I ran the Trading Game last week, my class’ “aggregate welfare” went from 128 to about 180, if I recall correctly, and you could just see that it had become obvious to students that (in this context of well enforced property rights) trade not only left no one worse off, but it increased aggregate welfare.
This exercise has apparently been around for quote some time and been done, with variations, by lots of teachers. It seems like a very good classroom exercise. I find myself wondering if it would somehow be possible to do a version that would mirror the classic The Economic Organization of a P.O.W. Camp paper dealing with the benefits of middle men.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Prayer Request

Dear readers, may I ask your prayers? My grandmother fell yesterday and hit her head and was on the kitchen floor for twelve hours before my aunt found her. She is in the ICU now, conscious and able to answer questions, but early tests have revealed some brain swelling. She and my dad were supposed to be leaving tomorrow for a week at Cape Cod, but instead he's going to be spending that vacation time at the hospital with her.

It seems so surprising -- I just saw Grandma two weeks ago at my niece's baptism, and she was so bright and conversational and alert, as spry and sharp as ever. We spoke of the books we'd been reading, and of raising children, and we sang some of the traditional Irish songs together. I haven't ever lived near Grandma, and I haven't seen her frequently these many years, so it was pleasant to sit and talk with her not just as her grandchild, but as an adult relating to another adult. I had hoped that we might have many more such opportunities. 

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

In Which Fahrenheit 451 Really Burns Me Up

You know me. I read whatever's sitting around, just because it's sitting around and because I like to procrastinate. And so I found myself, when I should have been doing something else, standing in my front hall all afternoon reading Fahrenheit 451, which came in a box of stuff from a friend. I'd never read it before, but I knew it by reputation as THE last word on censorship and haters who burn books. Surely a book acclaimed by so many voices must have something to say to me, as I stand reading it in the hall.

"It's fine work. Monday burn Millay, Wednesday Whitman, Friday Faulkner, burn 'em to ashes, then burn the ashes. That's our official slogan." So says Guy Montag, fireman, whose job is to start fires rather than put them out, fires that consume books. Books are verboten: society has not the patience to read and books might give offense to minorities or make people feel stupid. Burn 'em! There's plenty to entertain the masses -- in fact, the segment of society the reader glimpses seems to do nothing but be entertained. But a spark of rebellion is ignited in Montag's breast by the precocious Clarisse, who thinks. Suddenly Montag is intrigued by the books he's spent a decade burning, and then he connects up with Prof. Faber, a decrepit ex-academic (for the liberal arts have been drummed out of the universities along with the books) and then stuff goes up in flames.

Bradbury is a stylist, I'll give him that. Style upon style upon maddening style. Nothing happens but he can not spin it into a gossamer web of abstraction and introspection. Books burn, people attempt and commit suicide, men run for their lives, and cities are bombed to ashes, but we are remote from it, held at an arm's length by such an inundation of words that one can hardly wonder at his fictional shuttering of liberal arts colleges if this is how Bradbury thinks the intelligentsia write.

And such intelligentsia! So far above the mundanes in understanding! "Pity, Montag, pity," Professor Faber tells our hero. "Don't haggle and nag them; you were so recently of them." The condescension of the poor impotent elites drips through the pages and and scorches our fingers. Sweet ethereal seventeen-year-old-and-crazy Clarisse, who sees more than you, or perhaps is your proxy. Dear Professor Faber, who reminisces with a sigh about "the year I came to class at the start of the new semester and found only one student to sign up for Drama from Aeschylus to O'Neill", as if it wasn't that the one thing you can count on, apocalyptic future or not, is that actors will always be with us; who can play the stock market and invent listening devices in his bedroom but who hasn't the sense to market his invention to an apparently media-hungry populace to finance his own revolution. Oh you sinister Fire Chief Beatty, trying so hard to be menacing with your carefully-memorized quotes, but unable to rise above the level of a low-rent O'Brien from that other famous dystopian novel published the year before Fahrenheit 451. The countryside-full of towerless academics who have photographic memories and the ability to obtain or manufacture pheromone-altering philters, whose damn silly wilderness lectures give an idea of what damn silly places their classrooms must have been.

And such a future! Under Communism, the Poles used to joke, "The future is certain; the past is always changing." Bradbury's future reads like the past, but an altered, uncertain past, with the futuristic quaintness of the fire department's Mechanical Hound, and malignant goverment agencies which resemble no oppressive regime ever. What a visionary vision of the masses as sheeple, so confused by the scary concept of a legion of books contradicting one another because, you know, contradiction is an unfamiliar concept because people have never contradicted each other or themselves. Bradbury, whose fiery imagination apparently couldn't encompass the Kindle, does impress with such prophetic touches as full-wall televisions, interactive entertainment, and (perhaps most prescient) the ever-present earbuds piping constant noise to numb the listener. But these can't drown out the essential arrogance of the conceit that the world must be consumed by fire in order for They Who Carry Knowledge to rise up and resume their rightful places as intellectual saviors of the stupid masses who quiver with indignation at the slightest touch of complexity.

So, yeah. I found myself moved to irritation, not wonder, by this precious fable. And I wondered: whence the book's enduring reputation? Is it that Bradbury drops the names of all the right authors? Does he display just the right mixture of pity and contempt for the great unwashed? Is it that since everyone likes the frisson of feeling that his lifestyle is under attack, librarians everywhere swooned at the great persecution to come and so recommended Fahrenheit 451 beyond its merits? Am I simply a crank who doesn't know great literature when it wallops me over the head with its importance?

All these are burning questions. Let's read a snippet from the interview with Bradbury at the back of my edition of Fahrenheit 451, and see how he suggests that I, or other apathetic souls, might come to "appreciate the power of the word in a culture that is increasingly dominated by the visual":

"Hand them a book, that's all. Science fiction, fantasy -- my books have changed a lot of lives. My books are full of images and metaphors, but they're connected to intellectual concepts. Give one of my books to a twelve-year-old boy who doesn't like to read, and that boy will fall in love and start to read."

There you have it. Bradbury's solution to literary poverty is to read more Bradbury. Unfortunately, I'm too burned out from barbecuing sacred cows to deal with more of their award-winning output.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

The Birds and the Bees

I found myself tonight having a conversation which I hadn't exactly planned to have.

How does one get into these things? I was sitting at the foot of the twin bed in which Eleanor and Julia were snuggled (the other bed, across the room, has become, through neglect, a repository for stuffed animals and clean laundry). We had just said prayers. The discussion traced a meandering, but more and more inevitable course -- from praying for vocations, to praying for your future spouse, to Eleanor proclaiming that she didn't want to get married because she wanted to work at the zoo and when you got married you had to stay home with your babies (and here I reminded her that she knew some mothers who had childcare or worked part-time), to Julia pointing out that some people had babies when they weren't married, to my telling her that every child deserved to have a mother and father who were married to each other and who had promised to live together forever and give their child a loving home. Having babies before you were married was a grave sin against the baby, and that's why people needed to wait until they were married to show the kind of love that made babies. And being children themselves and seeing it from that point of view, Eleanor and Julia agreed that this was best.

"But then how do people have babies when they're not married?" Julia objected.

Well, having babies is a physical act that doesn't depend on whether you're married. That's why we prayed for purity so that they would always make the right choices and keep their minds and bodies holy. And the act of making babies was a kind of love that was only proper for married people, even if people who weren't married could behave that way, because babies deserve to have married parents who have promised to live together and make a family for that baby, remember? (Here I was starting to squirm.)

I can't retrace the conversational drift that led to discussing how fathers were necessary because humans needed both men and women for reproduction, nor how we got to eggs in women's bodies, but inwardly I was dying. "Just look confident and don't pause or stammer," I told myself, "and then they won't get wise to the fact that this is an Important Conversation." And finally we came to the rock on which I foundered.

"Well," I said, "boys and girls are different, you know. How is Jack different from you?"

"He's crazy!" Julia proclaimed.

I remember how moving it was when John McCain spoke at the 2008 RNC about how he had been tortured by the Vietnamese, and how he finally broke. Reader, I broke. I howled for ten whole seconds, which is a long time to laugh without interruption. The girls laughed because I was laughing, because what was so funny about making such an obvious statement?

"No," I was finally able to say, "how is his body different from yours?"

"He has that dangly thing, " one of them said with scorn.

"Yes," I said. "That's his penis." And this was followed with the briefest and least-involved account of how eggs were fertilized.

"I don't get it," said Julia. "How does the pen-nis touch the eggs?"

"It doesn't," I said. "It... what did you call it?"

"That thing."

"It's a penis."

"Well, I didn't know the name."

"Julia, haven't you ever heard Jack talk about his penis?" I asked incredulously. Jack will be four on Tuesday. We are in the throes of potty-training. There is a lot of discussion about penises here.

Julia dismissed the thought that she would ever pay attention to anything Jack said. "He's crazy."

"He is peanuts," I said thoughtfully. This was the kind of wordplay that the girls could appreciate.

Feeling an ever-strengthening desire to extricate myself from this conversation, I corrected biological misapprehensions with the least amount of detail necessary, and emphasized that these were not things that little girls needed to worry about.

"I don't want to think about it," said Eleanor, preparatory to putting her head under the pillow.

"Good," I said, with more enthusiasm than was seemly. "You don't have to think about it right now. At all. These are things for adults to think about. That's why right now we just pray for purity so that our minds and bodies will be clean and fresh. And that's why you should pray that if it's God's will that you get married, that your husband will be pure and holy as well."

"I'm not getting married," came Eleanor's muffled voice. "It's too much bother to have babies and be sick and get those wrinkly lines on your tummy."

I left the room with my dignity intact. Then, as I started down the stairs, I was seized with a sudden panic.

"You know, girls," I said, opening the door, "these aren't things we talk about with friends. These are only things for children to discuss with their families -- with their parents, okay?"

There was a murmur from the bed, from which I gathered that some people couldn't understand why anyone would want to discuss this subject with anyone, let alone friends.

And I thanked God that, at least for now, no one had cared to take the few logical steps to connect how babies were made with anything that their specific parents had ever done.

Friday, September 07, 2012

The Amateur Blogger Meme

Dorian at Scrutinies is examining what drives amateurs to blog, and has started a new meme:  So You Don't Want To Be A Professional Blogger:
I’d like to know – if you blog for other reasons versus blogging intentionally to build a platform for your writing/your apostolate/your cat – and I am not saying that it’s bad to try to boost blog traffic: 
1. If that’s not your primary focus, what enjoyment do you derive from blogging? 
2. Do you consider yourself to be a “successful” blogger? In what sense? 
3. If you could choose between having a post shared 500 times, or having one of your Internet Idols send you an email to say “I really enjoyed your post,” which would you choose?
My cat did stun a bat the other day, so mad props to her, but I don't think we can monetize that.

1. We blog because we like to hear ourselves talk. DarwinCatholic is our journal, our magazine, our outlet, and our 1920s Party. Also, it's the perfect method of procrastination.

More importantly, we blog because we like to hear you talk. We keep writing not only because it's an outlet for our thoughts, but because we put such value on the conversations that arise from various posts. Some of our most delightful friendships have sprung from blog interactions, and one of the things that keeps us writing is the desire to preserve and strengthen those friendships.

2. Sure, by our own lights. We've been writing for seven years and have gained a fair amount of proficiency in pounding out verbiage regularly. We have the best commenters in the blogosphere. What's not to love?

3. I'd rather get an email, from anyone. High traffic (not the same as having one's post shared 500 times, but often related) is not a good to be wished unless it produces quality discussion. I have no desire to wade through trolls and abusive commenters, or fight the same endless combox battles, or wrangle with those who are Wrong On The Internet. Dear intelligent eloquent civilized readers, we value you more than you know.

Now here's a question that Dorian didn't pose, but which seems an obvious follow-up: Would we ever blog professionally? (This is purely academic, since no one has offered to pay us for writing.) For myself, I find it unlikely. I like the freedom of answering to no one and writing on no one's schedule. I'm happy not to have editorial oversight. I don't want to have to tailor my posts to specific external audiences. Also, from the way some of the larger portals structure their pay systems, I doubt we'd ever actually see any money out of it, so there's that.

Really, I just don't want anyone telling me I can't post Lonely Island videos.

I'm not part of your system! I'm an adult!

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Initial Thoughts on College

I've caught up on reading Bearing's series on post-secondary education, and having done so I'm eager to start formulating some thoughts on the topic in general and on Mark's guest post "Why College Is a Bad Deal for America" in particular. I feel the need to sidle up to the topic and lay some groundwork, not just because I'm too short on time (trying to finish the novel, as I should be doing right now) to write a single exhaustive post, but also because I'm aware that this is a topic on which I have strong feelings influenced by my own history and the limited data set that personal experience provides.

Let me start by outlining my own personal background on the topic. I've written in the past about my own progress from a Classics degree to working in Marketing (and now, Finance -- pricing is one of those disciplines that can end up on either side of the divide.) What may or may not come through from that is the extent to which my personal pride ended up becoming wrapped up in proving that I could "make it" as a provider despite having a humanities rather than a technical degree. Many of the guys I hung out with socially in college were in business or computer science, and so I got a lot of "now you'll know how to say 'would you like fries with that?' in Latin!" ribbing. It was good natured enough, but I had (and have) more than my fair share of pride, and it tended to make me angry. Thus in addition to the need to provide for a family right out of college (MrsD and I married at 22, had our first child at 23 and our second at 24) I had a strong personal determination to prove that in the long run I could make as much or more than people who'd gone into fields like business, engineering and computer science.

So when I hear someone arguing that getting a college degree in general, or a non-career-oriented college degree in particular, is a bad investment, my first reaction is an entirely emotional competitive urge to respond, "Oh yeah? Can you match this?"

Secondly, my personal experience is very much formed around corporate office environments (in marketing and finance) where college degrees are almost a must. Yeah, sure, there are the famous college drop outs like Michael Dell and Bill Gates, but the companies those men founded employ almost exclusively college graduates when it comes to well paid salaried jobs. (If anything, I'm on the anti-credential side of the corporate spectrum, since I'm one of those who considers MBAs mostly useless degrees.) So when I look around me at the type of success that I'm most familiar with, purposely not going to college seems like a bad idea, because it mostly locks you out. (There are exceptions, but it's tough.)

Alright, so with those preliminaries out of the way, so that people will understand where I'm coming from and be able to contextualize what I'm saying accordingly, the approach I'd like to take is to lay out some thoughts in broad outline, and then delve into those points individually in further posts. Since these points are necessarily brief, I'll number them for easy reference in discussion. The ordering means nothing in particular.

1) I think that people are right to be concerned with the rapidly escalating cost of college education (undergraduate and graduate) and with the extent of student debt that people are getting into in order to finance their educations.

2) A great many people go to college believing that college guarantees them a job, or even a "good job". In our current economy, this is clearly not the case. Even people with degrees that are very job focused are having more difficulty getting jobs right now, and for those with less job focused degrees, things are even harder. That said, if things are hard for college graduates, they are even harder for people without college degrees and hardest of all for those without even high school degrees.

3) While one can argue that this maybe shouldn't be the case, a four year college degree is generally considered to be the minimum threshold for being a "well educated person" in our society at this time. As such, if you don't have a college degree, you're going to end up having to answer the question "why not?" to one extent or another (clearly, this will vary depending on your professional field and social milieu) and you will have to deal with people's unspoken assumptions based on your lack of degree.

3) All of that said: College is not a good deal for everyone. People who go to college but don't finish end up with debt and lost time, but don't have appreciably higher income or lower unemployment than those with only high school degrees. (Whether they learned and grew a lot is, of course, another matter, but I'd assume that dropping out isn't a great sign in that regard.) Further, some of the data out of the Academically Adrift studies suggests that among those who finish to college, unemployment is three times higher (and pretty similar to the rate for those with just a high school diploma) for those in the bottom 20% of academic ability as compared to those in the top 20% of academic ability.

4) On the other hand, we have a strong tendency to take a finding about society in general "college is a bad deal for some people" and apply it to each individual person regardless of circumstances. I'd argue that someone who has a lot of academic ability, and a strong desire to pursue a four year degree in some field, should not be dissuaded with the general observation, "College is a bad deal for some people." It's people who excel at and appreciate academic study who will get the most out of college both personally and professionally. Further, given that your children are more likely than the average member of the population to be like you (both as a matter of nature and nurture) while you shouldn't unduly pressure your children to follow your path, you probably also shouldn't assume that they should look like the general population. So if you and your spouse are both college graduates who did well in college and have gone on to successful careers, don't look at the overall population and say, "Well, 40% of people are graduating from college now, and many of them aren't doing so well, so probably most of my kids shouldn't go to college." If your kids are like you in ability and inclination, urging them to skip the college degree they want and get a certification in some skill like plumbing or welding instead is probably not a good a idea. (If they want to pursue one of those fields rather than college, that's a whole other situation.)

5) I think it's important to come to a broader understanding of the "liberal arts" as those arts and sciences appropriate to a free person. This means encouraging "liberal arts types" to study a bit of more hard-edged topics, and also making sure not to relegate more technical subjects strictly to training as opposed to education.

6) While I'm sympathetic to the search for "third ways", part of what made college such a valuable experience for me was living for four years with other people who where also studying academic subjects in depth, and the "community of scholars" feeling that creates. Goodness knows, it was imperfect, but I had a fairly intensive liberal arts education in high school and I've tried to do a fair amount of self teaching since, and I don't think either one is remotely comparable to the college experience.

7) While I'm a very big advocate of people getting an undergraduate college degree if they have the ability and inclination, I think people should very carefully weigh whether going to grad school is something really ought to do. It's often very expensive. If your hope is to get into academia professionally, it's an incredible career longshot. If you are doing it for more general professional advancement or benefit, I think you need to think hard whether the time and cost is going to have a sufficient return on investment. And if you're doing it because you don't know what else to do (or because it's just fun) I think you need to be very hesitant unless you can pull it off without incurring debt. Borrowing tens of thousands of dollars is a bad way to avoid making decisions.

Poison, Passion, and Petrifaction

I said that there was only one picture from my college days that I would want anyone to see, but on further reflection I repent me of my words, because I've just remembered that I was part of the world's most amazing photo ever: 

That's me, front and center, in the bird's nest wig and the checked suitcoat, playing Adolphus Bastable in a quickly-rehearsed production of George Bernard Shaw's Poison, Passion, and Petrifaction (or, The Fatal Gazogene). The literati may rave about Pygmalion or Major Barbara or other of Shaw's talky opuses, but allow me to recommend to you this one-act which involved attempted murder, angels singing "Bill Bailey", high fashion, and the eventual petrifaction of Adolphus Bastable after eating a quantity of the ceiling trying to ingest enough lime to counteract the poison in the gazogene.

FITZ. Still, if an antidote—
ADOLPHUS. [bounding from the bed] Antidote!
MAGNESIA. [with wild hope] Antidote!
FITZ. If an antidote would not be too much of an anti-climax.
ADOLPHUS. Anti-climax be blowed! Do you think I am going to die to please the critics? Out with your antidote. Quick!
FITZ. The best antidote to the poison I have given you is lime, plenty of lime.
ADOLPHUS. Lime! You mock me! Do you think I carry lime about in my pockets?
FITZ. There is the plaster ceiling.
MAGNESIA. Yes, the ceiling. Saved, saved, saved!
All three frantically shy boots at the ceiling. Flakes of plaster rain down which Adolphus devours, at first ravenously, then with a marked falling off in relish.
MAGNESIA. [picking up a huge slice] Take this, Adolphus: it is the largest. [she crams it into his mouth.]
FITZ. Ha! a lump off the cornice! Try this.
ADOLPHUS. [desperately] Stop! stop!
MAGNESIA. Do not stop. You will die. [She tries to stuff him again.]
ADOLPHUS [resolutely] I prefer death.
MAGNESIA and FITZ. [throwing themselves on their knees on either side of him] For our sakes, Adolphus, persevere.
ADOLPHUS. No: unless you can supply lime in liquid form, I must perish. Finish that ceiling I cannot and will not.
MAGNESIA. I have a thought—an inspiration. My bust [She snatches it from its pedestal and brings it to him.]
ADOLPHUS [gazing fondly at it] Can I resist it?

I don't remember what we used as a stand-in for the plaster ceiling; I think it was rice cakes.

You can read the text here.

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Fifteen Years Ago

September 5th, 1997 was a Friday night during my Freshman year of college, and being a Freshman who hadn't yet been at college for a month, I went off to an outdoor mixer/dance. I mostly went in order to see more of a girl I was somewhat interested in, but as it happened she was more interested in mixing than in me, so she introduced me to a girl wearing a bowler hat.

The girl in the bowler hat and I ended up not just dancing for a while, but sitting around the student center talking until they kicked us out at 2AM. Ten days later we started dating, and now, fifteen years later, we have five children together.

Somehow, there aren't huge numbers of pictures of us from our college years, and many of those that do exist are egregious, but MrsD has approved this picture (yes, it's in the cafeteria) from our Junior year as being about as good as we ever managed to look in college.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Marriage is built on trust, not political agreement

As Isaac Pollak, an ardent Republican, kissed his wife goodbye before heading out on a business trip to Asia several years ago, he handed her his absentee ballot for the coming presidential election and asked her to mail it. 
Bonnie Pollak, a Democrat, weighed her options. Should she be loyal to her spouse, respect his legal right and mail the ballot? Or remain faithful to her deeply held beliefs and suppress his vote?  
"It was a real dilemma," says Ms. Pollak, 58 years old, a student in a doctoral program in social welfare who lives in Manhattan. "I decided to do the right thing." 
Ms. Pollak threw the ballot away.
What an ugly little story. I don't think that a couple has to agree on politics to have a happy marriage -- after all, there is room for prudential judgment on how certain issues are to be addressed -- but this woman's blatant disregard for her husband's trust is breathtaking. The problem here is not that two people on opposite sides of the political spectrum are married to one another, but that the politics are more important than the marriage.