November 1, 2011
This image has been posted with express written permission. This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.
November 1, 2011
Current programs sponsored by science foundations such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science emphasize the importance of “science literacy” in both K-12 and higher education. College curricula have pursued these goals through science-literacy requirements or specialized science courses for nonscience majors. Much has been written about what science literacy is, with varying emphasis between the process of science and the knowledge generated by that process.
That’s all well and good, but relatively little attention has been spent on why we think science literacy is so important. Statements on the subject often begin with perfunctory justification; the value of science literacy is treated as self-obvious. And “literacy” sounds a bit defensive, laboring to justify the importance of science by defining it in terms of an essential fluency. We don’t talk about “philosophical literacy.” It seems as if we are straining to justify ourselves in response to religious fundamentalists and postmodernists who seek to constrain or diminish science education.
If science education is important for all Americans, then we need persuasive justifications for emphasizing science for all students in college curricula. I think the most common rationales are not terribly successful. One is that Americans’ scores on science-literacy surveys are poor in comparison with other developed nations. That is certainly cause for alarm, but it is not unique to science. Surveys of basic knowledge about history, for example, show similar results. I’m sure that Americans, over all, don’t have a good working knowledge of music, either. In general, we are more ignorant than we should be, but that doesn’t suggest why we should be fluent in the language and theory of science in particular.
Another common justification for promoting science literacy holds that basic scientific knowledge is an imperative to be able to function in an increasingly technological society. Citizens need scientific knowledge to make better decisions in their lives. But that justification is unsatisfying, because it conflates science and technology and leads to the conclusion that knowledge of science is simply a practical matter. Surveys have shown that Americans have a poor understanding of why there are seasons. Should we teach every American about orbital mechanics? That knowledge wouldn’t change the nature of the seasons or when people decide to put on a heavier coat. Likewise, the relationship between matter and energy isn’t immediately useful unless you are building a nuclear reactor. The practical-knowledge argument is a trap.
Many have argued that investment in science education makes economic sense. That is a major theme in the work of Thomas Friedman, of The New York Times. The central argument is persuasive: Demand for technically skilled workers is increasing, and American education is not supporting that demand. But, again, this tends to conflate science and technology, and emphasizes the practical over the theoretical. It also marries science to the economic machine in a way that may not be entirely desirable. When certain areas of inquiry no longer lead to obvious profit, they could, under this line of reasoning, be abandoned. And some forms of technological economic growth may actually be in tension with some of the major themes in environmental science.
Furthermore, vocational justifications are problematic in liberal-arts curricula, in which broad intellectual skills and knowledge are favored over narrow training for specific careers.
Next, there is the citizen-scientist justification. In a democracy, all citizens are involved—at least indirectly—in making policy. If policies are to be informed by scientific knowledge, then voting citizens must have a working understanding of scientific principles: An educated populace makes for better government. This argument seems to be a bit more successful in that it provides a rationale for why understanding major theories and the process of science is broadly informative. Politically motivated arguments against evolution and climate change would be less successful if the voting public had a good grasp of the tremendous explanatory power of the natural sciences.
While this provides a more convincing rationale for why all Americans should be scientifically literate, it falls short of explaining why science in particular should be highlighted. Solutions to political problems will not come solely from scientific theories; a good grasp of Keynesian economics is critical for current political conversations, too.
I think there may be a better reason that science literacy should be a major component of higher-education curricula. There is something transcendent about studying science. The humanities and social sciences, for the most part, concern themselves with the creations of human beings, our behavior, or the structure of our societies. In contrast, the sciences force us to confront the smallness and irrelevance of human beings; they serve as an antidote to self-obsession. Physics teaches us that time and matter are not absolutes; biology, that astonishing complexity can arise from a long, natural, stepwise process. The scope and existential implications of these ideas are immense…
November 1, 2011
It wasn’t that long ago that Republican money men and operatives in Washington were moping around K Street like Eeyore in the Hundred Acre Wood, lamenting their party’s extremist image and casting about for a candidate with a chance of beating Barack Obama in 2012. Citing what he called the “near self-immolation” of House Republicans during the debt-ceiling fiasco, Bill Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard, worried in early August that a “large number of Republican primary voters, and even more independent general-election voters, will be wary of supporting a Republican candidate in 2012 if the party looks as if it’s in the grip of an infantile form of conservatism.”
But a few months of obstinate unemployment can change a lot in Washington, and these days the mood inside the Republican establishment is, if not quite smug, then certainly relieved. In a slideshow widely circulated among Republicans in recent weeks, one of the party’s leading pollsters, Bill McInturff, noted that the consumer-confidence index (as measured by the University of Michigan and Thomson Reuters), had fallen in August to a score of 55.7. No president, McInturff pointed out, has ever been re-elected with an index score lower than 75. Around this time in 1979, as Jimmy Carter, the modern standard setter for failed presidents, was preparing to seek a second term, the index was at 64.5.
Given such fast-deteriorating conditions, many Republican veterans have come around to the view that they aren’t really going to need the perfect presidential candidate, and perhaps not even a notably good one. With Chris Christie having taken himself out of the running — again — earlier this month, the field of candidates now appears to be pretty much set, and none of them are likely to inspire any reimaginings of Mount Rushmore. But maybe all the moment requires is someone who can pass as a broadly acceptable alternative — a candidate who doesn’t project the Tea Party extremism of Michele Bachmann or the radical isolationism of Ron Paul. “If we have a Rick Perry versus Mitt Romney battle for the nomination, it’s a little hard to say, ‘Ooh, the party has really gone off the rails,’ ” Kristol told me just after Perry entered the race, a development that essentially ended Bachmann’s brief ascent. Establishment Republicans may prefer Romney to Perry, but their assumption is that either man can be counted on to steer the party back toward the broad center next fall, effectively disarming the Tea Party mutiny.
If that’s the case, then it now seems like only a matter of time before the Republican empire, overwhelmed by insurrection for much of the last two years, strikes back at last. “I think it’s waning now,” Scott Reed, a veteran strategist and lobbyist, told me when we talked about the Tea Party’s influence last month. Efforts to gin up primaries next year against two sitting senators — Utah’s Orrin Hatch and Indiana’s Dick Lugar — have been slow to gain momentum, Reed said, and it’s notable that more than half of the 50-plus members of the Tea Party caucus in the House ultimately fell in line and voted with Speaker John Boehner on his debt-ceiling compromise. Party leaders have managed to bleed some of the anti-establishment intensity out of the movement, Reed said, by slyly embracing Tea Party sympathizers in Congress, rather than treating them as “those people.”
Did he mean to say that the party was slowly co-opting the Tea Partiers?
“Trying to,” Reed said. “And that’s the secret to politics: trying to control a segment of people without those people recognizing that you’re trying to control them.”
As I made the rounds of Republican Washington in recent weeks and reflected on all this newfound optimism, though, I found myself recalling what Ken Mehlman, who managed George W. Bush’s re-election campaign in 2004, liked to say back then: “Hope is not a strategy.” It’s not clear which of those two things — hope or strategy — the Republican establishment is really embracing.
After all, in September, not long after I saw Reed, far-right Republicans staged another successful mutiny in the House, temporarily blocking a spending bill that Boehner had championed. Meanwhile, the “supercommittee” of lawmakers created by the debt-ceiling legislation is supposed to find more budget cuts by the end of the year, which means Washington faces another very public showdown. The deficit debate in Congress could easily dominate the campaign season, complicating the party’s election-year message and making it hard for any nominee to unify pragmatic insiders and Tea Party outsiders…
The Jewish wit and the morose anti-Semite: The Unexpected Alliance Between TS Elliot And Groucho Marx
November 1, 2011
The second volume of T.S. Eliot’s letters was recently published by Yale University Press, with new materials and previously unpublished missives. This is as good a time as any to reflect on Eliot’s most fascinating correspondent. Ezra Pound? Well, no. James Joyce? Hmm. No. Paul Valery. Non! I am referring to Groucho Marx. And no, this isn’t a joke. The letters between T.S. Eliot and Julius Henry Marx are among the strangest and most delightful epistles ever created.
Alas, the new volume only goes up to 1922, so it doesn’t include this remarkable correspondence, which began in 1961 and seems to have ended in 1964, shortly before Eliot’s death. I say “seems” because the complete set of letters has never, to my knowledge, been published. A handful of the letters appear in “The Groucho Letters”, a selection that came out in 1965. In his biography of Groucho, Stefan Kanfer quotes excerpts from letters that are not in the selection, so it can be assumed that at least a few unpublished gems are out there somewhere.
At this point, I should insert some boilerplate reflection, something along the lines of “Two more unlikely correspondents could not be conceived of”, etc. And on the surface, the two men certainly are a surpassingly odd couple. As Anthony Julius puts it in his book, “T.S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism, and Literary Form”, Eliot was “able to place his anti-Semitism at the service of his art. Anti-Semitism supplied part of the material out of which he created poetry.” And not just his poetry. In polemics like “After Strange Gods” and “The Idea of a Christian Society”, Eliot elaborated his belief that Jews had no place in modern life.
Enter Groucho, whose wit was as uniquely Jewish as it was universally comic. Where Eliot was the famous defender of tradition, order and civilised taste, the crux of Groucho’s humour was flouting tradition, fomenting chaos and outraging taste. “I have had a perfectly wonderful evening,” he once said to a host, “but this wasn’t it.” And: “I remember the first time I had sex—I kept the receipt.” And: “The secret of life is honesty and fair dealing. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” As for Groucho’s attitude toward Eliot’s exaltation of art and knowledge, he had this to say: “Well, Art is Art, isn’t it? Still, on the other hand, water is water. And east is east and west is west and if you take cranberries and stew them like applesauce they taste much more like prunes than rhubarb does. Now you tell me what you know.” What Eliot considered “the waste land” of modern life—the deracination, impudence and profane materialism—was mother’s milk to Groucho.
Yet one day in 1961 Groucho received in the mail a note from none other than Eliot himself. Expressing his admiration for the comedian, Eliot asked him for an autographed portrait. A shocked Groucho sent back a studio photograph of himself, only to receive a second note from the icon of modern poetry requesting instead a picture of the iconic Groucho, sporting a moustache and holding a cigar. A second photograph was sent out and a happy Eliot wrote to thank Groucho: “This is to let you know that your portrait has arrived and has given me great joy and will soon appear in its frame on my wall with other famous friends such as W.B. Yeats and Paul Valery.” Groucho had asked for a portrait of Eliot in return, and the latter happily enclosed one. Then the famously morose poet, characterised by Siefgried Sassoon as having “cold-storaged humanity” and by Ottoline Morrell as “the undertaker”, finished with a joke. “P.S.” he wrote. “I like cigars too but there isn’t any cigar in my portrait either.” Well, sort of a joke.
Eliot’s attraction to Groucho might come as a surprise—it certainly did to Groucho—but there had always been signs of his own buried antic disposition. For one thing, in his early expatriate days in London, he grew fond of wearing pale green powder on his face, occasionally accompanied by lipstick. For another, he expressed great enthusiasm for the defecation scene in “Ulysses” that had appalled Virginia Woolf. V.S. Pritchett described Eliot as “a company of actors inside one suit, each one twitting the others.” One thinks of the twitting Marx Brothers packed into that small stateroom in “A Night at the Opera”.
The St Louis-born American poet, who had transplanted himself to London for an extended impersonation of an Englishman, knew all about the suppressed comedy at the heart of role-play. Appalled by humourless modern ideologies like communism, Eliot might have been drawn to Groucho’s alternative mode of revolution. It seems he agreed with Irving Berlin that “the world would not be in such a snarl, had Marx been Groucho instead of Karl.” Eliot was also experiencing matrimonial happiness for the first time with his second wife, Esmé Valerie Fletcher, so much so that he had stopped writing poetry altogether. With sex, perhaps, came laughter.
As for Groucho, his love for books and culture was unabashed and unabated. “Outside of a dog,” he once proclaimed, “a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read…”