Friday, January 6, 2017

And He Doeth Great Wonders, So That He Maketh Dumpster Fire Come Down From Heaven On Earth In The Sight Of Men

By Finbarr Curtis

If you type "81 percent" into google, you will find a number of stories about white evangelicals who voted for Donald J. Trump. Like all poll numbers that measure religious affiliation, 81 percent is a deceptively simple summary of a diverse set of motives and identities. One could argue that few people identify themselves as "white evangelicals" and that this category is an interpretive fiction invented by pollsters. But while 81 percent might not necessarily measure what analysts think it measures, interpretive fictions still measure something. It seems that a lot of people who meet pollsters' criteria for white evangelicals agreed with Franklin Graham when he explained: "Even thought Donald Trump has some rough edges, there's something inside of him that desires the counsel of Christian men and women, and I don't know one Christian on Hillary Clinton's team."

Evangelical Trumpophilia has perplexed observers who have wondered how an impious sexual predator from decadent New York City captured the hearts and minds of the Bible Belt. Many concluded that Christians hypocritically abandoned their religious principles. Laments about evangelical hypocrisy assume that evangelicalism is a belief system. It seems so obvious that evangelicalism is defined by theology that it hardly needs to be argued. The idea that religions are internally coherent sets of beliefs is part of common sense about world religions. Self-identified Christians, therefore, are accountable to a religious tradition whose central figure endorsed poverty and humility. Once you decide that the Sermon on the Mount is the essence of Christianity, then you can demonstrate that evangelicals betray their own beliefs when they vote for Trump.

While the charge of hypocrisy might be useful for theological finger wagging, it is analytically empty. It tells you what you think white evangelicals should do rather than explaining what they do. It might be that confusion over Trump support is a sign that an analytic framework that relies on Christian theological convictions is not effective in explaining how social actors behave.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Literati for Trump

By Finbarr Curtis

This week's election of Donald J. Trump did not surprise me as much as it did those who predicted an easy win for Hillary Clinton. The county in which I live voted 59.9 percent for Trump and so I had some idea of the intensity of his support. I watched the final debate next to a man who said he liked Trump because he "talked like a regular guy" and a few seats down from a woman who exclaimed that anyone who didn't vote for Trump was an "idiot" and yelled "You killed those people in Benghazi" as Clinton appeared on the screen.

The Saturday before the election, I was talking to someone who didn't meet the profile of the archetypal Trump supporter from the rallies. He was a financially successful college graduate who was well-traveled and happy to engage in conversation with African Americans, Latinos, and liberal college professors.  He agreed that Trump was a horrible person and had no interest in fabricated scandals about Benghazi or emails. Mainly, he liked Trump's tax cuts and promises to deregulate banks. I asked him if he was such a free trader, did he worry about Trump's call for a 40 percent tariff on China and trade wars against Mexico. He responded: "Trump cannot actually do any of that stuff. There is no way that he could get that through Congress. That's just what you tell the illiterates."

After hearing this characterization of the mass of Trump supporters as "illiterates," I realized I was talking to someone who echoed the views of the Southern bourbon aristocracy that maintained power in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries through a divide-and-rule strategy.  In towns in the South, you still meet these members of old families whose names you recognize from the local streets named after their grandparents. Wealthy southerners discouraged economic populism across racial lines by helping to persuade working-class white voters that the greatest threat to them was posed by African Americans, and that big government was a tool of northerners who used minorities to exploit southern white men and women.

My interlocutor's conviction that Trump would not actually do most of the crazy stuff he promised appears to have been the conventional wisdom of Wall Street in the week after the election. In an election night post, I had attempted to imagine the economic effects of a Trump presidency if he enacted his policy proposals. But investors are gambling that this will not happen. If the markets believed that Trump would follow through on his protectionist platform, they would have plummeted. Instead, investors are convinced that Trump will be good for business. After all, Wall Street denizens are well aware of Trump's decades of outlandish promises. Trump financed every building project by making fantastic claims to rope people in and then daring his investors to sue when he did not deliver. Wall Street might be okay with this approach to the American voter

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Third Place

By Finbarr Curtis

When members of the People's Party debated whether to endorse the 1896 Democratic presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan, some Populists worried that a fusion ticket with the Democrats would compromise the core principles of the movement. Like many third parties in American history, the People's Party had to make a decision between maintaining a radical critique of the political system or trying to reform from within. Those who feared that endorsing Bryan would spell the end of the People's Party were right. The party never again matched the independent electoral success that it had when James B. Weaver won 8 percent of the vote in 1892. Furthermore, Bryan lost the election in 1896, and again in 1900 and 1908.

One problem for third parties is that as long as centrists in a two-party system can take their votes for granted, they have little electoral clout. If the number of third-party voters was large enough to cause a major party to lose, however, it might be forced to move further to the right or the left. This was in some ways the strategy of the Ralph Nader Green Party candidacy in 2000, which was premised on the idea that the two candidates (sometimes referred to as "Bore and Gush") had moved so far to the center as to be indistinguishable. A third party movement could disrupt this complacent consensus.

In 2016, Jill Stein of the Green Party and Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party allowed voters to avoid choosing between the "lesser of two evils." As I write this late on the evening of election night, the combined votes of the parties was enough to swing states like Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania into the Republican column, thereby swinging the election. Of course, it is entirely possible that the Johnson campaign depressed the vote for Trump as the Libertarians provided an option for never-Trump Republicans who might have otherwise voted for the GOP nominee.

The biggest impact on the election probably had less to do with vote count, however. Rather, the most pronounced effect on the race is that Green and Libertarian supporters sustained a narrative that two equally evil people were running for president. There was an intensity to the attacks on Clinton that went far beyond Nader's critiques of Clintonian economic and military centrism. The intensity of these attacks, whether justified or not, contributed to a wide perception that there was more at stake than just a political disagreement between left and center. Instead, repeating that was a Clinton was a criminal helped to give credence to specious scandals about Benghazi, emails, and charitable foundations that reinforced undecided voters' impressions that Clinton's candidacy represented a comparable threat to the misogynist and white supremacist campaign of a lifelong con artist. This served to neutralize Clinton's successes measured by conventional political criteria like her easily winning all three debates, her extensive political experience, and her promise to carry on the policies of a popular incumbent president.

It is possible, however, that a Trump presidency might indeed further the goals of more radical political critics. For one thing, Trump will unsettle the centrist status quo. The first likely result of a Trump victory will be a Brexit effect on the global economy that would include major losses in domestic and international markets. This might not be immediate as was the case with Brexit as some on Wall Street might welcome the possibility of tax breaks, but the eventual decline in global markets in inevitable. The United States economy, however, is much bigger than the United Kingdom's and so the negative effects will be larger and more widespread. Furthermore, Trump's economic and immigration policies are more radical threats to global trade than anything in Brexit. Trump's proposed 40 percent tariff on China and promised trade wars with Canada and Mexico will further depress the American and global economy. His improbable slate of tax cuts will create budgetary crises that will gut public infrastructure and result in the loss of millions of jobs of public sector employees in fields like education and law enforcement. We could also witness increasing instability abroad as Trump cedes hegemony over the Middle East to America's newfound Russian ally Vladimir Putin and proposes erratic displays of power for no purpose other than asserting American dominance. There are also likely to be unprecedented legal crises as Trump has promised to use institutions like the Attorney General's office to pursue criminal cases against political opponents and to restrict journalists' right to report on what are likely to be corrupt financial dealings within a Trump administration.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Reviewing The Production of American Religious Freedom

By Finbarr Curtis

Some people have things to say about The Production of American Religious Freedom

Sarah E. Dees in Religion in American History
The case studies that he presents—nodes in a complex web that transcend time, space, points of view, and specific social concerns—are themselves impossible to neatly tie together. Yet the book does offer a compelling contribution to the conversation about religious freedom in America, a contribution that uniquely highlights economic structures and concerns, notions of personhood, aesthetic and affective works and workings, and ideas about private property and public good. Furthermore, The Production of American Religious Freedom—with its analysis of data at the micro and macro levels and its focus on how particular beliefs structure actors’ engagements with others—exemplifies the unique type of interdisciplinary research that is possible within the field of religious studies.
 Michael Graziano in Religion in American History
After thinking with this book for several weeks now, I have come to think of The Production of American Religious Freedom as a toolbox with which you can tune-up your own ideas about religious freedom, regardless of the time period or geography in which you’re working. Those of us thinking about a turn toward institutions, especially public ones, should pay attention. I found myself slowly taking apart how I’ve used religious freedom in my own work, and then putting it back together, to see what Curtis’s economy of religious freedom might do for me. Readers should investigate what it might do for you, too.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Is Donald Trump a Human Being?

By Finbarr Curtis

Donald Trump will likely win tonight's presidential debate against Hillary Clinton. By win I do not mean that he will make more cogent arguments or demonstrate a superior grasp of political reality. He will certainly not do that. Rather, Trump can consider his performance a victory if he can convince 2-4 percent of American voters that he is merely plausible.

The reason he needs only to be plausible is that his critics have warned of his monstrosity. Commentators have struggled to find a language that can communicate the outlandish quality of the preternatural threat he poses to American democracy. It seems unreal that someone can insult the disabled and prisoners of war, can make overtly bigoted statement after statement, can believe something as extreme as birtherism and disbelieve something as obvious as global warming, can funnel campaign donations to his own businesses, can pattern his campaign after a fantastically corrupt Ukrainian oligarch who made no pretense of seeking power for anything other than his own enrichment, and can inspire a general atmosphere of fascist violence throughout his campaign performances. We are repeatedly reminded that this is not normal.

But this begs the question of what one means by normal. After each time Trump says or does something that goes too far, you think this cannot be happening. But it does happen. The news cycle goes on, and you get used to it. What was previously shocking then seems like no big deal when the next outrageous event happens. All of this is either terrifying or thrilling depending on who you are. It is possible that the Trump phenomenon is as unbelievable to Trump's supporters as it is to his detractors. He inspires such messianic devotion because he redeems people who felt like they had to code or conceal their racism and sexism, and now cannot believe their own freedom to speak their minds openly without shame or apology.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Fear and Safety at the University of Chicago

By Finbarr Curtis

On a short trip a few summers ago, I decided to visit the University of Chicago. As I looked for directions on the university website, I found routes by bus and light rail but noticed that it said nothing about the elevated subway that stopped close by. As I was staying close to the Green Line, it seemed like a quick route was to ride to the final stop and walk a few blocks north. This worked fine and I was on campus within a few minutes after getting off the train.

It later occurred to me that it was possible that the reason for omitting the L from the website was that University of Chicago administrators presumed that the neighborhood south of campus would make prospective students and visitors feel unsafe or uncomfortable. Therefore, the two mass transit suggestions directed students east of campus to the Hyde Park neighborhood. In other words, the University of Chicago is a literal safe space within Chicago's South Side.

This institutional commitment to safety is ironic in light of a recent letter from the Dean of Students to the incoming class of 2020. In the letter, Dean John (Jay) Ellison asserts that the university does not support "safe spaces" and warns students that they need to get tough: "You will find that we expect members of our community to be engaged in rigorous debate, discussion and even disagreement. At times this may challenge you and even cause discomfort." While the Dean's letter welcomes incoming students as they "continue on their intellectual journey," it does not recommend that this take them through the areas west and south of campus

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Extremist Common Sensism

Rudy Giuliani is afraid that you are not scared
By Finbarr Curtis

If you see the world as an apocalyptic struggle between the forces of light and the forces of darkness, then you are feeling pretty affirmed right now by this week's Republican National Convention in Cleveland. Various and sundry sitcom, soap opera, and reality television stars have taken turns warning us of a dualistic battle between "common sense" and "political correctness." The nominee's son, Donald Trump, Jr., extolled the wisdom of those who avoided fancypants schools like Harvard and Wharton (from which his father graduated in 1968) in favor of an education culminating in a "Doctorate in Common Sense."

One advocate for this linguistic theory was former New York mayor and current world-record-holder-for-breaking-blood-vessels-in-his-face-while-he-yells Rudolph Giuliani, who denounced anyone who refused to name the "enemy" of the United States as "Islamic extremist terrorism." According to Rudy, shirking this label denies the obvious violent threat that lurks everywhere. It is this assertion of obviousness, of simplicity in the face of apparent chaos, that gives common sense its force. Rather than accept self-evident reality, those imprisoned by political correctness cannot speak the truth because of their paralyzing fear of hurting people's feelings.

That the truth is apparent to everyone is what makes it common. This idea has its roots in eighteenth-century Scottish Common Sense Realism. In response to idealists and skeptics who offered complicated explanations for how people came to know and talk about things, thinkers like Thomas Reid argued that people's ordinary sense of the world was trustworthy. If you had a table right in front you, then you knew it was a table because you touched it and saw it, not because you had some idea of a table in your head. If intricate philosophical arguments seemed to contradict people’s ordinary sense of reality, it was overthinking that was at fault. As Reid asserted in his 1764 An Enquiry into the Human Mind on the Principles of Common Sense:

Poor untaught mortals believe undoubtedly that there is a sun, moon, and stars; an earth, which we inhabit; country, friends, and relations, which we enjoy; land, houses, and moveables, which we possess. But philosophers, pitying the credulity of the vulgar, resolve to have no faith but what is founded upon reason.
Idealistic philosophers offered unnecessary confusion and doubt. For Reid, it was absurd to throw out one’s ordinary sense of the world because theories could not explain it:
But if indeed thous hast not power to dispel those clouds and phantoms which thou hast discovered or created, withdraw this penurious and malignant ray; I despise Philosophy, and renounce its guidance: let my soul dwell with Common Sense.
Reid did not despise philosophy as such, but only philosophy that required a choice between abstract thought and everyday experience. Rather than disproving what we see, smell, hear, taste, and touch, philosophy should take this sensory data as the foundation for further inquiry.

When convention speakers appeal to common sense, they reassure you that Islamic extremist terrorism is an easily recognizable thing like a table sitting in front of you. This feels good if the world seems to be a confusing and scary place. But this raises a question of what "sense" allows you to see social identities like religion or extremism, or what allows for common sense pronouncements about ethnicity or gender or race. These are not things you can ordinarily see unless what you mean by "seeing" is confirming whatever your initial intuitive impressions are. In other words, what Rudy means by common sense is a visceral, precritical response to new information, what we often call a gut reaction. He relies on immediate, intuitive reactions as a necessary preparation for sudden threats. Refusals to act on common sense leave people vulnerable in an insecure world. 

Overthinkers who challenge common sense, especially those who Rudy calls politically correct, suggest that these immediate reactions are not reliable sources of information but are instead shaped by prejudices and assumptions produced by social forces. Or to say this in a less fancy way: Trump is the candidate of common sense because common sense is where racism comes from. Common sense offers a visceral feeling of satisfaction that comes from learning that your intuitions, prejudices, and assumptions were right all along. Assuring people that political violence is an inevitable outgrowth of a scary thing called Islam affirms a view of security that cautions against waiting around to analyze complex social problems. Making generalizations about people you don't know is one way of feeling safe in a world that you don't understand. Political correctness, therefore, poses an existential threat to those hoping to "Make America Safe Again."

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

The Trump Campaign Is Not Taking Place

Jean Baudrillard/Donald J. Trump

By Kerry Mitchell

I have replaced "simulacrum" with "Trump campaign" in the following: "The Trump campaign is never what hides the truth—it is truth that hides the fact that there is none. The Trump campaign is true." Ecclesiastes

By this I mean not, of course, that the Trump campaign is speaking the truth, but that the truth of his campaign—what his campaign is—is true: it is what it is. And what it is is nothing. There is no campaign. There is only Trump.

The absence of a conventional campaign was the subject of a recent MSNBC exposé that wondered whether the Donald could triumph while lacking a proverbial "ground game":
Donald Trump is a candidate without a campaign – and it’s becoming a serious problem. Republicans working to elect Trump describe a bare-bones effort debilitated by infighting, a lack of staff to carry out basic functions, minimal coordination with allies and a message that’s prisoner to Trump’s momentary whims. "Bottom line, you can hire all the top people in the world, but to what end? Trump does what he wants,” a source close to the campaign said.
For Trump supporters, the MSNBC report can be dismissed as a hit piece, a takedown. The article argues largely that Trump’s is a lousy version of a campaign, just as some suggest that Trump is a lousy version of a leader (but without the original, what can you do?). But there are threads within the article and other media that are much more threatening than disapproval, which is easily celebrated or dismissed depending on one’s leanings. These threads suggest not that Trump is being a bad leader, but that he is not being a leader at all. He is just being him. This suggestion is so much more threatening than disapproval as it removes the foundation upon which both approval and disapproval rest. Without such foundation political statements do not so much speak truth or falsehood as flash images that affirm or negate. Such statements are immune to argument, gaining their strength from the sense of confidence, joy, and invincibility with which they are asserted. If Trump has no campaign, if Trump is not a leader but just Trump, then the attacks on him will simply affirm this reality, breaking the feedback loop of claim and counterclaim and coming back again and again to the negation.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Tell Me About the Bunnies, Simon

President Cuddle Bunny
By Finbarr Curtis

Simon Newman, the president of Mount St. Mary's University and academia's own incarnation of Martin Shkreli, recently made a public splash when the school newspaper reported on his proposed plan to improve academic retention rates by encouraging some students to drop out of college. He wanted to administer a survey, identify students with lower scores, and then dismiss these students before the University had to report its enrollment numbers. Newman's theory was that students with lower scores were more likely to eventually drop out and hurt retention rates, so he might as well get rid of them sooner rather than later.

Predictably, this plan met with opposition. While specific details are fuzzy, it appears that the program was never enacted as faculty did not produce names of students to dismiss in time for the deadline. When emails discussing the program were leaked by his critics, Newman promptly sought the resignation of the Provost and fired a couple faculty members who opposed him.

Newman was capable of outside-the-box thinking because he is no educator.  His professional biography cites his master of business administration degree from Stanford followed by an illustrious 30-year business career that started at Bain Co and and LEK Consulting.  This career appears to have taught him that human suffering is necessary "collateral damage" of profitable business practices.  Newman informed educators that their desire to educate students was a sign of weak will. As he explained, “This is hard for you because you think of the students as cuddly bunnies, but you can’t.  You just have to drown the bunnies…put a Glock to their heads.”

Saturday, January 16, 2016


By Finbarr Curtis

Everyone understands that Ted Cruz is a terrible human being.  Even Ted Cruz seems to think that Ted Cruz is a horrible person. You can see it in the knowing smirk he makes when he says some outlandish thing designed to offend do-gooders, the twinkle in his eye he gets when he talks about carpet bombing civilians, the wry chuckle he lets out when he makes fun of women who cannot afford contraception, the sense of smug satisfaction that oozes from every pore when he calmly informs the American public that he will reduce economic inequality by cutting taxes on the wealthy, and the look of serenity that appears when he nourishes his soul by informing a nervous working woman that he would happily deport her.

Cruz is a representative of a peculiar species of conservative often found sporting bow ties on the debate teams of Ivy League schools.  This breed of conservative cites his argumentative prowess as evidence of great intelligence.  What this means in reality is that they have just enough intelligence to formulate arguments that are perfectly designed to get people to hate them, but do not have enough intelligence to do the more difficult work of persuading anyone.  Designed to provoke rather than convince, the pontifications of Ivy League Young Republicans produce a feedback loop of ubiquitous loathing that perpetually confirms their elite superiority.  Nothing makes them happier than their being hated.

Cruz's grin was stretching ear-to-ear in Thursday's GOP debate when he was asked about his accusation that Donald Trump represented "New York values."  Answering a question from Brooklyn-born Maria Bartiromo, Cruz stated: "I think most people know what that means." When Bartiromo said she did not know although she was from New York, he explained: "You might not know because you are from New York."

At first glance, this is a paradox.  Common sense would tell us that New Yorkers, those who have the experience of the Big Apple in their bones, would best understand New York values.  But Cruz is not one to shirk from logical contradictions.  Right after saying that Bartiromo might not understand because she was from New York, he upped the ante from his claim that "most people" know to "everyone" understands.  According to Cruz: "Everyone understands that the values in New York City are socially liberal, pro-abortion, pro-gay marriage, focus around money and the media." There is a literal paradox here as well.  A dictionary definition of "everyone" as "every person" would include people from New York.  But New York values are comprehensible to everyone except New Yorkers.

Friday, October 16, 2015

It's Not the Size of the Tent; It's How It's Constructed

By Finbarr Curtis

Elections are in the air.  Alongside the far more colorful contests for the American presidency, the American Academy of Religion put forth David P. Gushee and R. Kendall Soulen as candidates for the vice presidency of the organization.  While lacking controversy of Trumpic proportions, the AAR did face criticism here and here from scholars who noted that the two candidates both advocate for more theological reflection in the study of religion.  In his statement, Gushee expresses concern that the "AAR is seen as not particularly hospitable to, say, confessional or constructive theology, or more conservative religious viewpoints."
Gushee and Soulen reopen some old debates in religious studies and appeal to American senses of fair play and inclusion.  In their view, the AAR should be a big tent that includes lots of different perspectives.  I am not persuaded that their tent building requires any changes in organizational direction, however, because it strikes me that the AAR is a big tent right now.  Ironically, this means that everyone feels excluded.  Evangelical theologians lament that secular approaches to religious studies have squeezed out faith while critical theorists see Christian theological categories everywhere.

Monday, September 7, 2015

The Coddling of American Think Pieces

By Finbarr Curtis

Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt want to protect you.  Or more precisely, they want to protect you from people who are harming you by trying to protect you.  Their recent piece on the coddling of American students warns of political correctness on college campuses.  In its recent incarnation, political correctness damages young people's psyches by protecting them from the inevitable harm we all must face in the harsh real world.  Hypersensitive students invent increasingly subtle forms of racism, sexism, heterosexism, classism, and ableism, and then seek to protect themselves by asking professors to make these threats visible through markers like trigger warnings on course syllabuses.

Critics of political correctness are not just talking about college. Victims of hypersensitivity nationwide have found their most prominent spokesman in current Republican front-runner Donald Trump.  When questioned by debate moderator Megyn Kelly about his disparaging comments about women, Trump responded that the "big problem this country has is being politically correct."  Trump is the perfect anti-trigger warning.  Liable to say anything at anytime, his supporters are drawn to his honesty, his willingness to tell it like it is, his refusal to cower in the face of fraudulent liberal niceness, his insistence on giving offense as a much needed lesson to losers who take offense.  Speaking truth to sensitivity feels liberating to people tired of having to politely self-censor in order to avoid charges of racism and sexism.   The Trump-For-President Movement is a twenty-first century free-hate commune where you can express all your deepest, darkest, pent-up frustrations and everything is groovy and there are no judgments.

Many who decry political correctness on college campuses are mystified by Trump's rise.  There seems to be a difference between Lukianoff and Haidt's attacks on hypersensitive students and Trump's attacks on hypersensitive journalists.  But it is worth considering whether people making the same arguments for the same purposes might have similar motives.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Kind of a Big Fake

Some cool looking data from LaCour and Green's study
By Finbarr Curtis 

In a scene from The Legend of Ron Burgundy, the journalist Brian Fantana anoints himself with a special cologne made with "bits of real panther." The cologne's pungent gasoline aroma does not shake Fantana's confidence in its seductive powers.  As he explains, "They've done studies, you know. 60% of the time, it works every time."  Fantana's data make no sense, of course, but this is beside the point.  What matters is that "they" have done "studies."

The seductive magic of studies hit the interwebs this past week when it was revealed that a graduate student named Michael LaCour faked the data in an article entitled "When Contact Changes Minds: An Experiment on Transmission of Support for Gay Equality."  The study showed that canvassers working on behalf of marriage equality could change people's minds after relatively short conversations.  The essay also compared the persuasive power of straight and gay activists, suggesting that contact with gay canvassers produced longer and more sustainable changes in political attitudes.

LaCour co-authored the article with a professor of political science named Donald Green.  While Green helped to write the study, LaCour gathered all of the data and snookered his co-author into thinking it was real.  Green was not the only one fooled.  The findings made their way to Ira Glass's This American Life, which discussed the article in a story entitled "The Incredible Rarity of Changing Your Mind." The study was appealing because it confirmed liberal ideas about the sources of social conflict: that social divisions are caused by personal prejudices that can be dispelled if only people could get to know each other.  In addition, LaCour's data assured us that people are persuadable.  The takeaway from the study is that voters might be a lot nicer and reasonable then we might have thought.

None of this necessarily means that the findings have been proven wrong.  Ironically, activists who worked to pass a recent referendum for marriage equality in Ireland used the LaCour and Green study as a template for their own political strategy.  If LaCour had not been a quantitative social scientist, he could have simply written the study without the data.  If he was delivering a TED talk or writing an op-ed column, he could have said the same thing and possibly received critical acclaim and invitations to lucrative speaking engagements.

But LaCour inhabits an academic universe in which faking data is a cardinal sin.  Some have concluded that the current scandal proves that the system worked and confirms the importance of reliable data gathering.  As David Brookman, one of two UC Berkeley graduate students who discovered to the fake data when they tried to craft a similar study, explains:
The nature of the work that we do as quantitative researchers is that you allow the data to tell you what you think the truth should be. You don’t take your views and then apply those to the data; you let the data inform your views.
Brookman's faith in data is itself an interesting datum.  The LaCour affair seems to show that data themselves aren't what persuade people.  LaCour recognized that he just needed to have some data, that if he could produce sophisticated charts, graphs, and numbers it was unlikely that anyone would check.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

RFRA's Rocky Slope

Indiana Governor Mike Pence, Wishing for a Vacation
By Finbarr Curtis

While Americans are divided about the meaning of religious freedom, at least everyone can agree that Governor Mike Pence has had a bad week.  When Pence signed into law the Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), he explained that he wanted to protect the religious freedom of "every Hoosier of every faith." This seemingly innocuous proclamation was met with a flood of objections from voices ranging from the Hoosier-bred David Letterman to the Hoosier-beloved NASCAR.  The critics worried that the law would give Indiana citizens a religious right to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation.  Some Christian bakers, florists, photographers, and pizzeria operators confirmed these fears by announcing that they would refuse to provide services for same-sex weddings.

In response to the national uproar, Pence insisted that the act be amended to make clear "that this law does not give businesses the right to discriminate against anyone." One irony is that the amended Indiana RFRA states more clearly than the federal or other state RFRAs that it cannot be used for discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation (this is not to say that such discrimination is now against state law, however, as it was not outlawed in the first place).

So all good, then?  Well, not so fast.  Amending RFRA might actually highlight its power to erode the liberty of religious minorities.  What Pence's amendment shows is that the legislature can clarify what counts as religious liberty.  The problem is that what the legislature giveth the legislature can taketh away.  In theory, constitutional religious liberty claims would be inaccessible to legislative meddling.  As a state statute, RFRA would leave religious protections up to the whim of democratic majorities.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Kids Today

By Finbarr Curtis

During the controversy surrounding the 1995 film Kids, I remember seeing my Uncle Eamonn on television defending the movie's release.  While he wanted an R instead of an NC-17 rating, he did warn that "This movie isn't for kids." The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) gave the film an NC-17 rating because of its "explicit sex, language, drug use and violence involving children." My uncle's objection was not based on his desire to get kids to see Kids; the problem was that movie theaters would not show NC-17 films.  This amounted to de facto censorship because many people would not be able to see the film and it would fail to make any money.

One remarkable feature of this controversy is how unremarkable Kids would be today.  While its ability to shock still holds up, it now exists in a media landscape with such a proliferation of explicit sex, language, drug use, and violence that it would be hard to imagine its release making national news.

This observation seems to be at odds with a slew of recent essays that tell us that the current generation of college students are fragile, protected, and sheltered.  Judith Shapiro calls this phenomenon the "self-infantilization" of students.  Laura Kipnis worries about how students "cocooned from uncomfortable feelings" will deal with the harsh realities of the real world.  Judith Shulevitz reports that students in the past were "hardier souls" who would have resisted intrusive supervision:
Only a few of the students want stronger anti-hate-speech codes. Mostly they ask for things like mandatory training sessions and stricter enforcement of existing rules. Still, it’s disconcerting to see students clamor for a kind of intrusive supervision that would have outraged students a few generations ago. But those were hardier souls. Now students’ needs are anticipated by a small army of service professionals — mental health counselors, student-life deans and the like.
One feature of this current climate are requests for "trigger warnings" on course syllabuses.  These warnings alert students to content that could cause psychological harm.  A trigger warning is not unlike the MPAA's movie ratings.  Trigger warnings do not for the most part require material to be removed from the course; they alert students to some themes and give them the choice about whether they want to expose themselves to this content.  It is this request for an exemption that feels like a kind of de facto censorship to professors.  It offends our sense of free inquiry and the necessity of confronting difficult subject matter.

Concerns about overprotection are not all that new.  Many generations have lamented that kids today are spoiled and need to toughen up.  For this reason, I tend to be suspicious of theories about generational essences.  Such theories often draw heavily on nostalgic recollections of youth and tend to generalize about an entire era based on personal experiences.

Nevertheless, trigger warnings on college syllabuses are a novel development that asks for an explanation.  I wonder, however, whether we can do a better job of analysis than we find in jeremiads against kids today. My goal here is not to defend or criticize trigger warnings, but to try to offer some more satisfying explanation about what is going on.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Pardon the Interruption

Governor Scott Walker, Thinker

By Finbarr Curtis

Defending his recent proposal to cut 300 million dollars from higher education in Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker instructed professors to work harder to make up the difference.  Many tried to correct the governor by noting all of the work that college professors do.  For my part, I have already written about how an education in the humanities is useful because it teaches students how to work.  The reason that I won't repeat this here is that it seems beside the point in the Wisconsin kerfuffle.  That is, when Governor Walker says that college professors need to work more, he doesn't mean that they need to spend more hours in the office.  As someone who did not do much work in college, Walker is aware that it takes a lot of effort to succeed in school.  Indeed, the students who became college professors were the kind of nerds who worked a whole lot harder than him.

What Walker really means is that the work that scholars do might be interesting to them but doesn't perform any practical economic function.  The harder that professors work, the lazier they are.  The lazy professor is destined to become an austerity archetype in the tradition of the surfing food-stamp glutton or the welfare mom.  Archetypes like welfare abusers or lazy professors persist not because they explain anything about social reality, but because they provide assurances that difficult structural problems can be fixed by reforming the personal habits of people who depend upon public resources.

I could list the many reasons why Walker is wrong.  But in this post I want to consider why his image of the lazy professor resonates with so may people.  It seems to me that the way that professors talk about their own work might contribute to popular perceptions of their laziness.  To this end, I would like to revisit the portrait of professorial labor found in Professor Laurie Zoloth's 2014 address to the American Academy of Religion.  In her address, entitled "Interrupting Your Life: An Ethics for the Coming Storm," Zoloth called on the AAR to take an occasional sabbatical by canceling its annual meeting.  Her hope is that by canceling the conference every seven years, the AAR could reduce the carbon footprint caused by thousands of academics flying from around the world to stay in hotels and eat meat.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

It's a French Thing

We readily imagine that we are a very tolerant civilization, that we have welcomed all forms of the past, all the cultural forms foreign to us, that we welcome also behavior, language, and sexual deviations.  I wonder if this is an illusion. - Michel Foucault
By Finbarr Curtis

The proliferation of essays following the Charlie Hebdo massacre confirmed Roland Barthes's observation that "Every national shock produces a sudden flowering of written commentary."  Most rallied behind the slogan "Je suis Charlie," but some offered other views.  In this vein, I wrote something that resisted conventional wisdom.  While I supported Charlie Hebdo's right to free speech and protection from murder, I was less convinced that I needed to applaud Charlie's heroism.  Many lamented how hypersensitive, humorless Anglophone academics like me ignored the French context. As Olivier Tonneau explained, if Brits and Americans knew more we would realize that these cartoonists were precious friends and allies:
Even if their sense of humour was apparently inacceptable to English minds, please take my word for it: it fell well within the French tradition of satire – and after all was only intended for a French audience. It is only by reading or seeing it out of context that some cartoons appear as racist or islamophobic. Charlie Hebdo also continuously denounced the pledge of minorities and campaigned relentlessly for all illegal immigrants to be given permanent right of stay. I hope this helps you understand that if you belong to the radical left, you have lost precious friends and allies.
In Adam Gopnik's description, the French have a "savage tradition" of satire that would shock most American sensibilities:
The staff of the French magazine Charlie Hebdo, massacred in an act that shocked the world last week, were not the gentle daily satirists of American editorial cartooning. Nor were they anything like the ironic observers and comedians of manners most often to be found in our own beloved stable here at The New Yorker. (Though, to be sure, the covers of this magazine have startled a few readers and started a few fights.) They worked instead in a peculiarly French and savage tradition, forged in a long nineteenth-century guerrilla war between republicans and the Church and the monarchy.
These reported national disagreements recall the 1971 debate between Noam Chomsky and Michel Foucault, which began as a discussion of human nature and developed into an argument about justice, inequality, and freedom. Except in this case, the parties have switched sides.  The French line up with Chomsky to defend enlightenment ideals while some Americans see freedom through the lens of discursive power.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Je ne suis pas Charlie

By Finbarr Curtis

In the wake of the recent mass murder of the contributors to Charlie Hebdo, we have been awash in calls to decry violence and affirm commitments to free speech.  These sentiments are reasonable and should be widely embraced.  But one notable feature of this discussion has been the rise of the affirmation: "Je suis Charlie." This slogan asks us not only to denounce violence, but also to sympathetically identify with the writers of Charlie Hebdo. We are asked to applaud their heroism and courage in the face of extremism.  This sympathetic identification is remarkable in that people in democratic societies do not usually need reasons not to be murdered. Furthermore, identifying with Charlie poses a challenge because the publication's cartoons gleefully traffic in bigotry. In particular, the murderers took offense at insulting portrayals of the Prophet Muhammad.

Many defend such bigotry, however, on the grounds that Charlie Hebdo was an "equal opportunity offender." These defenses have insisted that the cartoons in question were not Islamophobic because they also insulted Catholics, Jews, and everyone else. Furthermore, images that appeared to be patently racist were really just profanations of religious figures.  Whereas racism would be unacceptable to secular liberals, anti-religious invective is okay.  In this way, the label "religion" performs magical work. Comparisons between religions take disparate images and transform them into the same thing.  A caricature of the Pope becomes no different from an stereotypical image of the Prophet Muhammad.

Such magical thinking, however, forgets that the intelligent use of comparison depends upon discerning differences.  In his classic essay "In Comparison a Magic Dwells," Jonathan Z. Smith reminds us:
Comparison requires the postulation of difference as the grounds of its being interesting (rather than tautological) and a methodical manipulation of difference, a playing across the "gap" in the service of some useful end.
The apologists for Charlie Hebdo who celebrate equal opportunity offenders offer comparisons that make no difference. By accepting that anti-Catholic and anti-Islamic slights are the same thing, this rhetoric asks us to forget everything we know about European history and politics.  Rather than a form of social criticism, Charlie Hebdo's habit of offending everyone in the same way marks the absence of intelligent analysis.

Instead of speaking truth to power, equal opportunity offense erases the realities of social power. This is partly why the role of equal opportunity offender appeals disproportionately to white men. Charlie Hebdo's cartoons voiced white Frenchmen's sense that their political and aesthetic freedom was under threat by a Muslim minority. Consistent with calls for race or gender neutrality, equal opportunity offense celebrates its commitment to equality and freedom in ways that distract attention from existing social inequalities.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Devil in Mr. Wilson

By Finbarr Curtis

If Dorian Jackson perpetrated a fraud in his grand jury testimony, he did a remarkably good job.  While not all of the details in Jackson's story are clear, someone crafting a self-serving narrative designed to frame a police officer would not usually volunteer that his friend had committed a crime, that they planned to get high, that he had been stopped by police before, that he did not comply with an officer's order, and that both the officer and his friend could not remain calm.  Jackson describes a familiar, ordinary confrontation between two human beings, both headstrong, both physically assertive, both feeling disrespected and instinctively suspicious of the other, but only one with the will and the power to initiate and conclude a confrontation with deadly force.  An incompetent liar would have told a story with less nuance.  We could imagine testimony in which Jackson insisted that Michael Brown did nothing wrong, that a police officer assaulted them without warning and for no comprehensible reason.

In other words, if Jackson was trying to lie he would have told a story like Darren Wilson's.  Wilson's testimony has none of Jackson's complexity and ambiguity.  His is a simple morality tale of angels and demons, of an innocent baby in the grip of a furious giant.  Wilson does not describe an angry encounter between human beings, but instead tells of an inexplicable assault by a mysterious force of diabolical fury.

There is a telling difference in how Wilson and Jackson describe the motives of others in their stories.  While Jackson recounts his shock, he does not portray Wilson as extraordinary and unintelligible.  According to Jackson, Wilson spoke in the familiar tones of disrespect and infantilization that a condescending father might use when talking to children.  Jackson observes that Wilson was not "stopping us or telling us anything like we were committing a crime so much as chastising from a father to a son, like you are doing some wrong.  Hey, put that down or don't touch that, it came off like that, that's how he said it."  Commanded to get out of the street, Jackson and Brown ignored the order because Wilson did not accuse them of a crime but merely cursed at them in the way that people do when they talk down to others who are less powerful.  This was nothing out of the ordinary in Ferguson, Missouri.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Newt Gingrich Does Not Want to Party Like It's 1899

Newt Gingrich, Innovator
by Finbarr Curtis

It's not clear why Newt Gingrich hates the 1890s so much.  Maybe he's still seething over the decade's proliferation of agrarian populists and urban progressives.  Maybe he has been too busy to revise speeches he wrote in the 1990s that employed a familiar rhetorical trope of attacking policies by denouncing them as a century out of date.  Whatever the sources of Gingrich's 1890s loathing, his love letter to innovative education focuses mostly on how much the schools sucked.  As he explains:
Teachers lecture, students sit and some listen. Class happens at the same time, with the same material, and at the same pace for everyone. This is an 1890s model of education -- teaching to the "average" student, rather than the individual.  In an age when most information and knowledge is transmitted digitally and is increasingly personalized—think about how Netflix, Pandora, Twitter and Facebook work— we should be able to do much better than that.
Well, I'm thinking about Netflix, Pandora, Twitter, and Facebook, and Gingrich has a point that these work nothing like education in the 1890s.  Now that I think about it, they work like no model of education anywhere at anytime because these corporations do not do the difficult work of teaching.  Some of you might object, of course, that a lot of important conversation happens in these spaces.  You could probably get pretty snarky and note that the only reason you are reading this piece right now is that you followed a facebook or twitter link posted by yours truly.  And you'd be right.  People can make all sorts of interesting uses of different media.  What Gingrich cites as worthy of emulation, however, is the most anti-intellectual quality of Netflix, Pandora, Twitter, and Facebook: the apocalyptic promise of "increasingly personalized" knowledge.  While we have access to more information than in the 1890s, our social media habits sort through all this to help us live at the center of our own mediated worlds.  By using your tastes to shape what you see, networks of surveillance and distribution bring you information in familiar narratives that confirm your biases, assumptions, and prejudices.  The leviathan is you.

Monday, July 21, 2014

We Are the MOOC

Sebastian Thrun of Udacity and Locutus of Borg

While there are lots of views about whether Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) should supplement or replace classroom instruction in higher education, at least everyone can agree that MOOCs are bad.  And I mean everyone. Every single person who has ever defended or attacked MOOCs agrees that they are bad.  We might even say that the most widely shared proposition in all of higher education would be these three words: MOOCs are bad.

The main reason we know that MOOCs are bad is that even those people who try to promote and defend them tell us that they are bad.  Take this defense of MOOCs:
Schools like MIT should not be forced to dilute the power of their brand by being forced to give their regular degree to students who simply take some of their tuition-free online courses. However, it is equally inappropriate to give no value to the online learning that occurs in a MOOC, particularly if a student can complete a high-quality, rigorous course and then prove mastery of the material on a separate, proctored, certifying exam.
In other words, schools like MIT know perfectly well that MOOCs will "dilute the power of their brand" but MOOCs are fine for less prestigious educational institutions (ie., schools that failed to develop "brands" because they were preoccupied with the work of teaching students).  But while there is unanimous agreement that MOOCs are bad, we are called to support them because they are "innovative." Take these recommendations by the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology:
Encourage accrediting bodies to be flexible in response to educational innovation. PCAST recommends that the Federal Government urge regional accrediting entities to be flexible in setting standards for online degrees to accommodate new pedagogical approaches and to avoid stunting the growth of a burgeoning industry.
So MOOCs should be allowed to compete.  But MOOCs cannot compete because MOOCs are bad.  Therefore, accrediting bodies need to lower the standards so that MOOCs have a chance to compete on a level playing field.  And by level playing field we mean that the MOOCs will offer bad education and we will decide that this just as good.  If this logic doesn't make sense to you, then you are one of those benighted intellects that fails to understand innovation.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Religious Studies! Huh! Good God Y'all. What is it Good For?

Absolutely Nothing.  Or at least absolutely nothing is how Edwin Starr characterized the fruits of war back in 1969.  Because Starr’s sentiments are shared by many in today’s academy, scholars are likely to be troubled by a recent Guardian article about the Department of Defense’s Minerva Initiative.  In some ways, Minerva’s objectives seem familiar.   The DoD provides grants to researchers who “define and develop foundational knowledge about sources of present and future conflict with an eye toward better understanding of the political trajectories of key regions of the world.”  To do this, Minerva hopes to encourage a “basic understanding of the social, cultural, behavioral, and political forces that shape regions of the world of strategic importance to the U.S.”  It’s that last part about strategic importance that is jarring to many scholarly ears.  Humanists and social scientists are uncomfortable with such bald-faced assertions that we seek to know the world in order to control it.

Among other things, Mineva hopes to understand social movements that might foster organized violence.  One possible source of such violence is labeled “belief.”  The hope to better understand belief shapes the first priority research topic entitled: “Belief propagation and movements for change.”  Under the category entitled “mobilization for change,” Minerva welcomes research that helps to develop a “better understanding what drives individuals and groups to mobilize to institute change. In particular, models that explain and explore factors that motivate or inhibit groups to adopt political violence as a tactic will help inform understanding of where organized violence is likely to erupt, what factors might explain its contagion, and how one might circumvent its spread.”

While many scholars of religion might distance themselves from the DoD’s desire to study belief in order to protect security, few eyebrows are raised when religious studies is tasked for civic projects such as “promoting peace” or “teaching tolerance” or “encouraging interreligious harmony.”  While “security” and “peace” conjure up different political associations, it is not clear that they are so analytically distinct.  The Minerva Initiative seeks to identify peaceful and tolerant beliefs that support religious freedom and minimize the threat posed by narrow and intolerant religions thought to produce violence.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Anthropos Metreon


The black girders rose triumphantly, defiant in their lack of detail. The clean lines of an abstract industrial swagger. Jennie sat comfortably in the stainless steel chair. I sat across gazing, the lights bouncing off her long black hair at odd angles. We were having Mexican at the old Metreon foodcourt.
“How’s the guacamole?”
“A bit limey,” she said. “I think we should cut it with some cumin.”
Jennie had always been taste sensitive, at least she had been in high school.
“But Jennie,” I said, smiling, nervous, overthinking my words. “Cumin is hard to come by these days.”
She looked into my eyes and took a no-look dip with her chip.
“You ain’t kiddin’”

Friday, February 28, 2014

Twelve Fixed, Eternal Commandments for Academic Job Candidates

by Finbarr Curtis

In my too many years on the academic job market which culminated miraculously in my current position, I received a great deal of advice about how to navigate job application and interview protocols.  I thought I would pass along some of this received wisdom in the form of these twelve fixed, eternal commandments that reflect a universal consensus about the proper guidelines for would-be scholars.  Here they are:   

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Humanist as Producer

by Finbarr Curtis

This one time in college I learned that if you work hard enough you can get Sonic Youth to play Eric’s Trip. It’s not that complicated. You just yell the name of the song until Thurston Moore says (pretty much to shut you up): “Okay, okay, we’ll play it.” As the third track on Daydream Nation, Eric’s Trip is an education of sorts, but not the kind offered by college. As the song tells us:

I can't see anything at all
All I see is me
That's clear enough
That's what's important
To see me

Back then, I probably found more irony in the lyrics that authorial intent would have it. Coupling “I can’t see anything at all” with “All I see is me” came across like a disavowal of anything like “enlightenment” and seemed calibrated to measure just the right amount of ironic distance native to the New York punk scene of the last millennium. But now I’m not sure. So it might be better a couple decades later to read the mantra “to see me” at something like face value. It’s a safe bet this was meant as something countercultural, a quest for interior fulfillment at the expense of conventional measures of educational, career, and worldly success.

Eric’s Trip’s pedagogical philosophy would seem, then, to be a far cry from the sober warnings to undergraduates to think about the marketability of college degrees in the humanities. In this post, I want to think about what people are seeing when they look for the “value” of humanistic education. My view is that supporters and critics of the humanities, while seemingly at odds, actually share the view that an education should satisfy what students really want, or should really want. Choosing whether to satisfy some deeper longing or material need, students can either free their minds from social constraints or happily enslave themselves to the capitalist vision of worldly success. I propose that these options miss the point by trying to figure out what the humanities give you rather than what the humanities produce.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Partial Leviathan Shutdown: Where Were You When I Set Up the Panda Cam?

by Kerry Mitchell

By and large, descriptions of the US federal government shutdown have followed rational, even quantitative models. There are charts, lists, numbers, items, and stories that outline the specific and general effects, both nationally and locally. To be sure, there is much opinion on the shutdown that bears tenuous relation to logic. Sarah Palin, for example, described the shutdown as a “pinprick,” noted President Obama’s statement, referring to proposed military strikes in Syria, that the US “doesn’t do pinpricks,” and said “but sometimes we elect them” – a use of “pinprick” so acrobatic in its logic that it would qualify her statement as more of an emotional tone poem than a didactic critique. But underlying the variety in rhetoric, regardless of its persuasiveness, there is a solid base of concrete information. The media have described the federal government, not comprehensively, but nevertheless in very clear, definable aspects through outlining the suspension of its activities.

When Hobbes referred to the ultimate sovereign authority governing a society as “Leviathan,” he described something much larger, more sublime, and more mysterious than the US federal government in the amalgamation of its departments and services. It is both too easy and too quick to equate Leviathan with a government so concretely conceived. Subsequent discourse has expanded the use of the term to include many different kinds of social authority. So with the partial government shutdown unfolding in its complex but graspable ways, I do not ask after the small “l” leviathan (the pinprick leviathan). Rather, I ask after this larger, ungraspable but eminently palpable Leviathan that infuses reality with its strange and multitudinous forces. I ask what would happen if this Leviathan were to partially shut down. What would that look like? What would open up?

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Steven Pinker Likes You. He Really Likes You.

by Finbarr Curtis

I want to be Steven Pinker’s friend. As a humanist, then, I was relieved when he told me in a much discussed New Republic essay that science was not my enemy. This is good because I did not think science was my enemy.  Just in case there was any confusion, Pinker assures us that he is a big fan of the humanities. Or, at least, he likes what the humanities once were and might be again if humanists could be more like their Englightenment predecessors. As Pinker explains,

These thinkers—Descartes, Spinoza, Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Rousseau, Leibniz, Kant, Smith—are all the more remarkable for having crafted their ideas in the absence of formal theory and empirical data. The mathematical theories of information, computation, and games had yet to be invented. The words “neuron,” “hormone,” and “gene” meant nothing to them. When reading these thinkers, I often long to travel back in time and offer them some bit of twenty-first-century freshman science that would fill a gap in their arguments or guide them around a stumbling block. What would these Fausts have given for such knowledge? What could they have done with it?

Not to brag, but I have read some of all of these thinkers at some point or another. For this, I can thank my humanistic education. But what puzzles Pinker is why people like me can read such good books and ask such bad questions. He sees an achievement gap between science, which has advanced by leaps and bounds, and the humanities, which have regressed from the Enlightenment to what he calls “postmodernism.”

The fix, then, would be to pick up where the Enlightenment left off. But let’s think for a moment about Pinker’s longing to travel back in time to school our early modern theorists in some freshman science. Take our friend Thomas Hobbes, who Pinker likely has in mind when he bestows the title of evolutionary psychologist on pre-Darwinian thinkers:

They were evolutionary psychologists, who speculated on life in a state of nature and on animal instincts that are “infused into our bosoms." 

For Pinker, Hobbes’s proto-scientific attempt to describe the state of nature could have gone so much further if he had more empirical data. If he only knew what scientists know today about evolutionary psychology Hobbes could have come up with the political and legal theory that could solve the problems that plague us all. This knowledge would have helped to settle disputes between other heavyweights like Locke and Rousseau, both of whom had their own speculative visions of the state of nature.

Here is where humanists, or at least the kinds of humanists that vex Pinker, are likely to see things differently. From many of us, the states of nature described in Hobbes, Locke, or Rousseau tell us less about the early life of the human species and a lot more about the early modern nation states in which these thinkers lived. In this approach, Hobbes's theories about the state of nature can be best understood as the imaginative projections of a guy living in a seventeenth-century England embroiled in civil war.

Friday, September 20, 2013

I Am Applauding the President's Speech on Education Except I'm Doing the Opposite of That

by Finbarr Curtis

Recently, a spate of critiques of the President's speech last month in Buffalo on educational affordability have led off with a diplomatic effort to find common ground over the commitment to lowering college costs.

Like this statement by Rudy Fichtenbaum of the American Association of University Professors:
While we applaud the President for raising concerns over rising tuition and student debt, concerns that we share, we also believe that the President’s proposal will do little to solve the problem and will likely result in a decline in the quality of education offered to working class and middle class students, particularly students of color.
Or this post by Frank Donoghue at the Chronicle of Higher Education:
My reaction to his speech, however, was decidedly mixed. Parts of it resonated emotionally, as it contained, not surprisingly given Obama’s skill as rhetorician, several applause-worthy lines. I couldn’t help come away with the sense though, that the Obama administration doesn’t fully grasp the entire universe of higher education in the U.S., and that his punchiest solutions are ultimately unworkable.
Or another critical response from the Chronicle of Higher Ed from Biddy Martin:
I applaud President Obama for putting the importance of a college education squarely at the center of the national agenda in his speech at the University at Buffalo, and for insisting that students get the education they need regardless of economic circumstances.
I applaud these responses for their rhetorical generosity but I'm going to refrain from applauding the President's support for affordable education because then I would have to applaud for every person in America.  No one likes rising college costs.  Applauding the President's commitment to lowering educational costs is roughly equivalent to saying "I applaud President Reagan's commitment to the broad concept of peace when he named those missiles Peacekeepers."

The reason I am not applauding is that with the exception of the laudable goal of shifting assessments of educational quality away from US News-style ratings, most of the specific proposals are the kinds of things that will either increase college costs or decrease the quality of education.  Not only that, the President's call to put more work into developing measures of educational quality is obviously something that will increase costs because it will require more resources to sustain the administrative oversight that has been one of the larger contributors to rising college costs.

But others have already made this point.  The interesting question to me, then, is not so much why the proposals in the President's speech will not lower college costs but why anyone would believe that they would.  One possible answer to this lies in the President's call to "jumpstart competition between colleges."  This is curious because colleges are already pretty competitive in all sorts of ways.  Indeed, competition among colleges for what are imagined to be the most select pool of undergraduates is one significant source of the explosion of costs.