November 5, 2005

Phlit is back! After a six-week hiatus, your favorite e-zine is back! This is the first issue distributed via Yahoo’s group e-mail system; please let me know if you find any problems.

I recently received e-mail from a Phlit subscriber: “I’ve been collecting your newsletters. Now I need to find time to read through them.” This is a clear violation of Article I, section vi of the Phlit Rulebook; Phlit subscribers aren’t allowed to store, collect, or file this e-zine. It must be read, and read in its entirety, as soon as it’s received. Then it can be filed away.

1. Quickies

A. They say that the two happiest days in the life of a boat owner are the day he buys his boat, and the day he sells it. Perhaps one could say the same thing about readers: the happiest days in a reader’s life are the day he starts a new book, and the day he finishes it.

B. I recently saw the movie, “March of the Penguins.” A great movie, a true movie, an honest movie, an educational movie. No fancy special effects, no plot tricks, no pandering to vulgar taste. It shows how good a movie can be — more specifically, how good a nature movie can be. Some might say that it should be called a “documentary” rather than a “movie,” but this is a minor point. Perhaps it falls short of the highest achievement of film because it has no human element — except at the very end, when you see the orange-clad cameramen trudging through the snowy wastes with their tripods. A humanist must reserve his highest praise for art works that portray man — the baseness of man, the glory of man, the potential of man.

2. Wikipedia

If you’ve been reading Phlit for a while, you know that I’m a fan of Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia. Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, was recently interviewed by C-SPAN’s Brian Lamb for his show “Q & A.”

Wales is 39. He grew up in Huntsville, Alabama, where his father was a grocery store manager, and his mother ran a small, one-room private school. Wales attended his mother’s school until he was high-school age. He says, “we had a fair amount of freedom to study whatever we liked,” and he compares the school to Montessori schools. Wales spent many hours reading the encyclopedia. Later he attended Auburn University. He pursued a Ph.D. in finance, but abandoned that in order to become a futures-and-options trader in Chicago. There he made considerable money — enough to retire young, and pursue projects that interested him. Wales is a disciple of Ayn Rand, the Russian-Jewish-American writer who is famous for advocating an independent character, and a capitalist economy.

In the late ’90s, Wales started two Internet projects, and then left them. He started his third Internet project, Wikipedia, in 2001. The name “Wikipedia” comes from a Hawaiian word, “wiki-wiki,” meaning “quick.” A “wiki” is a user-created, user-edited website; there were “wikis” of various kinds on the Internet before Wales started Wikipedia. One might describe Wikipedia as the intersection of the wiki, the free software movement, and Wales’ own interest in learning.

Wikipedia is run by volunteers, and has only one paid employee (a person who works on technical issues). Wikipedia receives donations from various sources, and will spend about $1,000,000 in 2005 (mostly on servers, I suppose). One of the nice things about Wikipedia is that it has no advertising, and no fees. Wales himself is starting some “for-profit” Internet projects, as well as continuing his work on Wikipedia.

The Wikipedia website receives more visits than the New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, and The Washington Post combined; it records about 2 billion page views per month. It has separate encyclopedias in 62 languages. Its English version is by far its largest, with about 740,000 articles. Some of its articles are taken from the 1911 edition of Encyclopedia Britannica, which is in the public domain.

The remarkable thing about Wikipedia is that anyone can write a new article, or edit an existing article. The community of volunteers monitors this work — polishes it, corrects it, etc. The ultimate authority is Wales himself; he likens himself to a benevolent dictator. Wales is to Wikipedia what Linus Torvalds is to Linux. Wales says that, as Wikipedia matures, his own power will decline; he compares this decline to the decline of the British monarch’s power.

Wales describes himself as “anti-credentialist.” While academia respects credentials, Wikipedia has no regard for credentials. “To me the key thing is getting it right,” Wales says. “And if a person’s really smart and they’re doing fantastic work I don’t care if they’re a high school kid or a Harvard professor, it’s the work that matters.... You can’t coast on your credentials on Wikipedia... you have to enter the marketplace of ideas and engage with people.”

As I mentioned in an earlier issue, Wikipedia does an excellent job of presenting both sides of The Shakespeare Controversy. A traditional encyclopedia — a scholarly, peer-reviewed encyclopedia — gives only one side of The Shakespeare Controversy — the establishment side. Wikipedia is more open to new ideas, more open to intellectual revolutions, more open to new paradigms, than scholarly encyclopedias, or scholarly journals. The peer-reviewed journal is a cornerstone of academia, but it seems inherently conservative, inherently biased against revolutionary ideas. Established scholars are good at what Kuhn calls “normal science” but their minds are usually closed against new paradigms — like the Oxford theory.

If the Oxford theory is true (and I’m sure it is), then the academic establishment has failed miserably to understand the greatest of imaginative writers. Perhaps the establishment should re-think its methods, re-think the idea of “peer review,” and consider borrowing a page from Wikipedia. Perhaps Wikipedia has discovered a new approach to scholarly work, an approach that is especially well-suited to revolutionary ideas.

A good motto for Wikipedia might be the opening sentence of Aristotle’s Metaphysics: “All men by nature desire to know.”

3. Harvey Mansfield

I’d like to resume the discussion of Harvey Mansfield that I began in the last issue of Phlit. I finished watching Mansfield’s 3-hour C-SPAN interview, and I found it to be full of wit and wisdom. I’m more impressed with Mansfield now than I was when I was a student in his class. During the C-SPAN interview, Mansfield said that he didn’t strive for clarity in his lectures; on the contrary, he tried to go beyond his students, so that they felt they were missing something, and would listen harder. Perhaps that explains why I didn’t like his lectures; I’m a fan of clarity in lectures, as in writings.

Mansfield spoke clearly in the C-SPAN interview. For example, when he was arguing against affirmative action, he quoted the old saying, “two wrongs don’t make a right.” He decries the loosening of academic standards that occurred in the late 60s. He also decries “grade inflation,” and he complains that 51% of the grades given out at Harvard are A or A-. (I expressed my own thoughts on grades and grade inflation in an earlier issue.)

C-SPAN invited viewer questions, and several people called in, and asked about Mansfield’s view of Ayn Rand. As might be expected, Mansfield doesn’t think much of Ayn Rand; Rand is popular with laymen, but not with academics. Mansfield has some respect for Rand insofar as Rand was a champion of laissez-faire capitalism, but on the whole, Rand is too popular, too un-scholarly, for his taste.

One caller asked what Mansfield thought of John Rawls, a contemporary political philosopher with a liberal bent, who died in ’02. Mansfield described Rawls as “a great formulator of liberalism for our time,” but he said that Rawls’ work wouldn’t live.

Mansfield is in his early 70s, but he’s fit and youthful; it wouldn’t surprise me if he continued teaching and writing for another fifteen years. In previous issues of Phlit, we’ve discussed many intellectuals who lived to an advanced age, and Mansfield seems destined to do the same. Is there something in the scholarly life that conduces to longevity?

Though Mansfield is youthful in body, he doesn’t seem youthful in mind. His convictions have changed little in fifty years. He’s still the Straussian that he was “way back when,” and his icons are still Plato and Aristotle, as was the case fifty years ago. One caller asked if he had ever changed his mind, and he said that he changed from liberal to conservative in the mid-1950s, prompted by his opposition to communism. Like many academics, Mansfield is a fan of reason and rational thinkers; he has little use for mystics and Hermetists. He’s uncomfortable with Nietzsche, and calls him “unsound.”1

Mansfield said that Bill Kristol, TV commentator and prominent conservative, is teaching at Harvard this year; Kristol is co-teaching one class with Mansfield, and co-teaching another class with a different professor. Kristol was a student of Mansfield’s in the early 70s; Mansfield said, “I don’t know if I’ve had a better student than Bill Kristol.” The respect is mutual: Kristol has considerable respect for Mansfield, and is imbued with Mansfield’s Straussian perspective.

Mansfield’s next book is called Manliness, and it’s due out in a few months. Mansfield says that it isn’t an argument for or against manliness; rather, it’s a discussion of what manliness is, what earlier thinkers have said about it, etc. Mansfield says that we’re moving toward a gender-neutral society, the old distinctions between men and women are being erased; he says that this is the first gender-neutral society in history.

At the end of the C-SPAN interview, Mansfield was asked about the Harvard President, Larry Summers. Mansfield said that he liked Summers because Summers wasn’t politically correct, and because Summers was trying to restrain grade inflation and affirmative action. So Mansfield regards Summers as a kindred spirit, despite the fact that Summers was a member of the Clinton administration, despite the fact that Summers is (in Mansfield’s words) a “liberal.”

Summers stirred up controversy when he questioned whether women were inherently inferior in certain scientific fields. He was rebuked by the Harvard faculty, and his future at Harvard seemed uncertain. He then received what Mansfield calls “bad advice” from a Kennedy School teacher, David Gergen: Gergen advised Summers to make a public apology, arguing that a show of weakness would endear him to his female critics. But instead of endearing him, Summers’ apology made his critics more critical. Mansfield says that the female professors at Harvard are divided into two groups: hard-core feminists, and genuine scholars. He says that the hard-core feminists succeeded in persuading the genuine scholars to join them in their assault on Summers. Today, however, Summers remains the Harvard President.

Before Summers became Harvard’s President, Mansfield was known for challenging the Harvard administration. He often rose at faculty meetings, and requested statistics that the administration was unwilling to provide — such as statistics on the performance of black students.

I recall Ed Banfield telling me, in the mid-80s, that Mansfield’s daughter (Mary) was a medievalist. In 1989, his daughter, his daughter’s husband, and his first wife were killed in a car accident. After his daughter’s death, Mansfield prepared her Ph.D. thesis for publication. It was published as The Humiliation Of Sinners: Public Penance In Thirteenth-century France, and it won several prizes. Mansfield is now married to Delba Winthrop, a former student whom he married in 1979; Ms. Winthrop teaches political philosophy in Harvard’s Continuing Education division.

Mansfield’s appearance on C-SPAN inspired me to write him an “open letter,” which I sent to various Harvard newspapers:

October 21, 2005

Dear Prof. Mansfield,

I’m writing to you as the chief representative of the Straussian philosophy, a philosophy that has become so important in contemporary America. I believe that the Straussian philosophy is leading young people astray. As a former student of yours, I ask you to consider my arguments.

In his Autobiography, Mill said that modern society has an urgent need for a new religion because “the philosophic minds of the world can no longer believe its religion.” Doubtless this is still true today. The Straussian philosophy doesn’t help to develop a new religion, doesn’t foster spiritual growth. The Straussian philosophy aims at the mind, not the soul. Straussians recommend writers like Plato and Aristotle, who are rational rather than spiritual.

Strauss had a special interest in political philosophy. It seems to me that what Harvard students need most isn’t political philosophy, but rather a-political philosophy — thinkers who are concerned with the inner life, thinkers like Alan Watts, the champion of Zen, and Carl Jung, who respected many religious traditions.

Because Strauss had a rational bias, he wanted things to be logical, and he was uncomfortable with contradictions. When he found a contradiction in a great philosopher, he felt that there must be a purpose in it, that the philosopher must be trying to conceal his true thoughts. Strauss didn’t understand that truth itself is contradictory, and that’s why great philosophers contradict themselves. One of the most gifted students that Harvard ever had, the great humanist Bernard Berenson, said, “If in places I may seem to contradict what I say elsewhere that is no wonder, for nothing we can say, except perhaps in the quantitative sciences, can be more than a half-truth.”

And if contradiction is embedded in the humanities, it is no less so in physics. Light is both a particle and a wave. Niels Bohr said there are two kinds of truths: “there are the superficial truths, the opposite of which are obviously wrong. But there are also the profound truths, whose opposites are equally right.”

Because of Strauss’s rational bias, he couldn’t accept contradiction, which is repugnant to reason. So he viewed contradiction as an attempt at concealment. When he read philosophers, he suspected concealment everywhere; he hired an Army code-breaker to read Machiavelli. Doubtless Strauss was also uncomfortable with occult phenomena, which are also repugnant to reason.

Strauss said that great thinkers are very rare, and we’re lucky if one is alive in our lifetime. But Harvard has produced several great thinkers — Emerson, Thoreau, William James, Berenson, etc. — and might be producing more now. What are Straussians doing to discover contemporary thinkers? If we’re preoccupied with ancient philosophers, we’re apt to overlook the thinkers who are around us, who ride the elevator with us. By emphasizing the old classics, Straussians make us retrospective, and make us ignore contemporary developments. “Our age is retrospective,” wrote Emerson, “it builds the sepulchers of the fathers.... Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition?”

Jim Hammond ’83

4. Edison Schools

I recently saw Chris Whittle interviewed on a C-SPAN series called AfterWords. AfterWords is a weekly broadcast in which an author is interviewed, not by a C-SPAN journalist, but by a fellow author, or by a politician. Chris Whittle founded an organization called EdisonSchools, which manages public schools on a for-profit basis. They manage about 150 public schools around the country, so they’re about as large as an urban school district. They’re usually entrusted with schools that are abysmal failures, ghetto schools, not schools in affluent areas. They manage numerous schools in Philadelphia, and each year they manage more schools, since their results have been positive. They’ve begun to turn a profit, albeit a small one.

Edison Schools isn’t alone: there are other organizations that manage public schools, such as Kipp, which operates on a non-profit basis. Whittle is in his late 50s, and has worked at EdisonSchools for about 15 years; he says he intends to continue for another 15 years. He just published a book called Crash Course: Imagining a Better Future For Public Education.

Before becoming involved with public education, Whittle was a successful businessman (if I remember correctly). He has the smooth style — both confident and amiable — that many successful businessmen have. He argues that educators should be paid more, but since it would be too expensive to raise teacher salaries, he proposes to raise principal salaries instead. If the salaries of principals were sharply increased (Whittle argues), more people would be attracted to that career, and more people who are currently principals would remain in that career.

The only way to sharply increase teacher salaries, in Whittle’s view, is to sharply decrease the number of teachers. If you cut the number of teachers in half, then you can double the salaries of the remaining teachers, without using more public resources. The number of teachers can be reduced if you increase the amount of independent study; Whittle envisions a merger of home-schooling and public education. He admits, however, that the idea of reducing the number of teachers hasn’t been tried — even in Edison schools.

It seems to me that both teachers and principals are already well paid. If capable young people aren’t interested in becoming educators, it isn’t because the pay is low, it’s because the job is difficult — they don’t want to wrestle with discipline problems.

Whittle praises Bush’s education initiative, known as “No Child Left Behind”; he says that test scores have risen as a result of this initiative. He says that the federal government should be more involved in public education — not as a day-to-day manager, but as a designer, a strategist. His own organization, Edison Schools, spent millions of dollars designing a better public school, their efforts have borne fruit, and Whittle is optimistic about the future of public education.

© L. James Hammond 2005
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1. In an earlier issue, I discussed Straussian coolness toward Nietzsche. back