Twofish's Blog

January 15, 2008

Stanley Fish shows how awful academia has become…

Filed under: academia, history — twofish @ 6:53 am

There are these sad and awful writings by Stanley Fish that I think illustrate how out of touch and useless academia has become, and why we really need to rethink the entire system of higher education.

I happen to come from an intellectual tradition that believes that the role of the intellectual in society is to serve as leaders and examples for the community and to carry the eternal flame from past generations to future ones. The fundamental belief is that if people think about what they are doing, and learn from the past, that in the end society benefits. One reason I find myself outside of academia and in the world of business and commerce is that I find far more people on Wall Street who are trying to use their skills to make the world a better place than I’ve ever found in academia. Something I find shocking is that academics don’t really try to use their skills and their learning to make even academia a better place.

You can’t argue that a state’s economy will benefit by a new reading of “Hamlet.” You can’t argue – well you can, but it won’t fly – that a graduate who is well-versed in the history of Byzantine art will be attractive to employers (unless the employer is a museum). You can talk as Bethany does about “well rounded citizens,” but that ideal belongs to an earlier period, when the ability to refer knowledgeably to Shakespeare or Gibbon or the Thirty Years War had some cash value (the sociologists call it cultural capital). Nowadays, larding your conversations with small bits of erudition is more likely to irritate than to win friends and influence people.

Utter nonsense.

Great art and great literature let’s people try to answer or at least ask the really important questions. For example, “why do I want to be attractive to an employer?” “what does an employer find attractive?” Reading Hamlet to be personally very useful because it gives you an appreciation of irony and of tragedy which is really useful for day to day official social interactions. How is Byzantine art useful to an employer? I don’t know, maybe an expert in Byzantine art can tell me, but one thing that I’ve found is that creative people are always on the look out for something new and different and you can often find something new in something old. As far as the Thirty Years War and Gibbon, it might not be that useful when you are at parties, but it is deadly serious that you know something about history when you go to vote.

It’s a pretty idea, but there is no evidence to support it and a lot of evidence against it. If it were true, the most generous, patient, good-hearted and honest people on earth would be the members of literature and philosophy departments, who spend every waking hour with great books and great thoughts, and as someone who’s been there (for 45 years) I can tell you it just isn’t so.

That says something really, really bad about literature and philosophy departments and not something bad about literature and philosophy. Academia nowadays actually discourages people from thinking big thoughts and coming up with great ideas.

As far as the usefulness of literary analysis. Prof. Fish points to an example where he analyzes a line an in old poem. Interesting. Now the ability to do that sort of analysis comes in to be *really* useful if you start using it on a 30 second television commercial or if you are writing a 30 second television commercial. Look at any campaign ad or ad for orange juice. It’s in effect a poem that wants to get you to feel something and once you feel that something, it makes you want to go out to do something. If you can analyze what it trying to make you feel and why, then you can make more intelligent decisions about whether you really do what to do that something.

Do humanities courses change lives and start movements? Does one teach with that purpose, and if one did could it be realized?

If the answers to these questions are (as I contend) “no” – one teaches the subject matter and any delayed effect of what happens in a classroom is contingent and cannot be aimed at – then the route of external justification of the humanities, of a justification that depends on the calculation of measurable results, is closed down.

That says something bad about humanities professors and not about humanities.

Assuming that if they had been schooled in the right texts (Paul Krugman rather than Milton Friedman, Cornel West rather than William Buckley) they would have devised better policies is a fantasy, and indeed, it is the same fantasy the neoconservatives buy into when they argue that if we were to introduce radical Muslims to the writings of Jefferson, Madison and J.S. Mill, they would learn to love freedom and stop wanting to destroy us. The truth is that a mastery of literary and philosophical texts and the acquisition of wisdom (in whatever form) are independent variables.

No. This isn’t true. I doubt that anyone who has read Aristotle, Thucycides, or Gibbons would have make the same mistakes that the neoconservatives made. Also if you are widely read, you would have read the Koran and the writings of Islamic jurists to understand the culture and the mindset of the middle east. As far as introducing radical Muslims to Jefferson, Madison, and Mill, I don’t know how they would react. Give them some of those texts and start having a dialogue. Find some suicide bomber, give him a copy of Jefferson, and ask “what do you think about this?” I’m pretty sure that the answer to that is going to be more useful than if you try drowning him.

I should point out that this is a shockingly simplistic notion of what it means to be educated. Because educated means *reacting* to texts, not merely passively absorbing them. It means being part of a conversation with the author even if the author has long since been dead. Someone who is educated makes what they read part of them, even if they disagree with it.  It’s not a matter of the “right texts” or the “wrong texts”.  It’s a matter of being exposed to a wide variety of contradictory information and trying to make some sense out of it.  Someone really can’t claim to have been educated in economics for example, unless they’ve tried to read both Adam Smith and Karl Marx (Marx is more fun to read the Smith).

October 8, 2007

Difficult decisions postponed — Good

Filed under: china, economics, history, politics — twofish @ 10:54 pm

First of all, I don’t think that who is or is not in the Politburo will make a huge amount of difference as far as economic policy goes. The driving factors for PRC decision making are mostly institutional rather than personal.

Second, when dealing with complex systems like economies, I think it is almost always a bad idea to implement decisive political changes without a lot of discussion and consensus. The reason for this is that arguing about an issue gives you some broader perspective and also makes more much more subtle and sophisticated policy. The need to preserve employment is a valid policy goal, and I’ve found that in arguing about an issue that you often end up with creative solutions. The thing that makes policy tricky is that you never will know what happened if you didn’t undertake a policy. Yes, maybe by boosting unemployment, you end up avoiding the disaster. Then again maybe not. it’s possible that one’s economic principles were wrong in the first place, and by boosting unemployment you just made the problem worse.

Something that is important is that Chinese decision making leaves under the shadow of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Saying that some massive pain is necessary in order to avoid disaster insure a great future is something people heard before, and are really skeptical of now. Sure your theory says that we might do X to avoid disaster Y, but maybe your theory is wrong.

Finally, in a situation where you have real economic growth, it makes sense to delay difficult decisions until later, because the longer you delay the decision, the more economic growth you have, and the more economic growth you have, and the more options you have for fixing the problem. Also making a difficult decision generally leads to new problems and new difficult decisions.

The entire history of Chinese economic reform since 1978 has been the history of political compromises and delaying difficult decisions for as long as possible. In hindsight, I think that this has been a wise move since there are things we now know about the Chinese economy that we simply did not and could now have known in the past. For one to argue that this time “bold decisive action” is necessary, one has to explain how “this time is different.” And since 1978, there has been no shortage of people arguing that “this time things are different.” I don’t think they are, and the key thing that makes things the same is that we don’t know what is going on.

Reading back since 1978 there have been a whole slew of papers that have argued “China is doomed unless they give this incremental approach to reform, and take bold action now” and in hindsight these papers have been wrong and the course of action suggested by these papers would have been sub-optimal for reasons that were unknown at the time the papers were written. One thing that is humbling is to go back in time, and read papers that describe policy suggestions at a point in time pretending that you know only what people knew them. It’s amazing what people just got wrong, and there is no reason to think that we are going to be less incorrect with our own predictions of the future.

If you go and ask most people in the Chinese bureaucracy what the key to Chinese success has been, I think that the answer is not in particular decisions, but rather in a philosophy and a mode of decision making.

“Seek truth from fact” (which by the way was a phrase used first not by Deng Xiaoping but rather a 17th century Chinese philosopher) means “don’t seek truth from theory” whether the theory was written by Karl Marx, John Maynard Keynes, or Milton Friedman.

September 25, 2007

So what is going to cause the Chinese government to collapse this month????

Filed under: china, economics, history, politics — twofish @ 5:30 am

And the “thing that will cause the Chinese government to collapse this month” is “the environment.”   Last month it was food quality.  Next month, I’ll bet it will be food prices.  Then we go into the Olympics and it could be any number of things.  Racial tension?  Old age pensions?  Collapse mortgages?  Calls for universal suffrage in Hong Kong? No matter, what ever the problem, it will the problem that will collapse the system.

It’s kind of interesting that for the past twenty years, pundits have been coming up each month with the “issue that will kill the Chinese government.”  With the one party authoritarian system, the Chinese government couldn’t possibly solve *this* problem, and then they proceed to do that.  Now eventually the doomsayers will be right, eventually something will cause the Chinese government to collapse.  It may be the sun turning into a red giant or invaders from Alpha Centauri, and there is always the irony that the second you say that maybe this issue isn’t important that this *will be* the issue that kills the Chinese government.  But what I find amusing is that there is very self-reflection, and entertainment of the possibility that maybe the Chinese government *isn’t* quite as brittle as it looks.  People point to the Soviet Union, and say “here is an example of something that the experts said would last forever, and didn’t.”  But maybe people are making the opposite mistake with respect to the Chinese government.

I think the fundamental issue is a conflict between prediction and free will.  If you make a prediction that X is going to happen in five years, then you are really making a statement that nothing people can do will prevent X, and at that point you turn people into automatons.  Once you accept the principle that people can make decisions, and people can change the future, then there are limits to prediction.  The standard retelling of the fall of the Soviet Union makes it sound historically inevitable, but if you look at the history of the Soviet Union or that of the United States, there are lots of places where things could radically change if you put the right (or wrong people) at the right time (or the wrong time).  What if Roosevelt had died while Henry A Wallace was vice-president.  What if Khurschev had survived the 1964 power struggle.  What if Brezhenev had just followed different economic policies?  What would have happen had Elian Gonzales’s mother at the last second decided not to go to Florida?

There is a limit to how much things can be predicted.  What happens next depends on the decisions you make, and the decisions I make.

January 1, 2007

Post on Han Learning

Filed under: academia, china, confucianism, history, law — twofish @ 2:26 am

QUOTE(Yun @ Dec 31 2006, 10:58 AM) *

I am very impressed by your being able to relate your profession as an astrophysicist to the Han Learning tradition. But I’m afraid your characterization of the Han Learning vs. Song Learning debate seems to be incorrect. Essentially, it was Zhu Xi Neo-Confucianism (i.e. Song Learning) that elevated the Four Books and reinterpreted them in certain ways to purge influences from Daoism and Buddhism, using the argument that Confucianism has been distorted ever since the Han period. Han Learning was a reaction against this blanket dismissal of Han scholarship. Han Learning scholars attempted to restore the importance of the Five Classics which had been eclipsed by the Four Books, and also criticized the liberties that Neo-Confucians like Zhu Xi took in interpreting ancient texts to suit the Neo-Confucian agenda. Furthermore, they were able to prove that some of the classic texts that Song Learning used to justify its doctrines were really post-Han forgeries, the most prominent such forgery being the then-standard version of the Old Text Shangshu.

Correct. And Han Learning scholars such as Dai Zhen then accused Zhu Xi of being overly influenced by Buddhism and Daoism and in order to recover the “pristine copies” of the ancient classics, the Han Learning scholars then turned to evidential research, which meant careful research into philology and language in order to remove the Buddhist contamination. This lead them to research astronomy and mathematics which they believed would be the key to deciphering the ancient classics and return China to the pre-Han golden age. Until the Sino-Japanese War, they were convinced that the science and technology that they were seeing coming from Europe was merely “lost ancient Chinese knowledge” that the Europeans had merely refined. After 1895, this belief was unsupportable, but you see the academies in Zhejiang and Jiangsu which had been founded to conduct evidential research reorient themselves to continue research in astronomy and mathematics, and around this time you have the first foreign students to Japan and the United States, which after a generation or two, leads to me…..

So there is a pretty direct line of transmission between the Han Learning school and me. The irony of the school is that they methods that were using to reconstruct the pre-Han “golden age” by demanding strict observation and evidence (i.e. scientific investigation) would later demonstrate that the golden age that they were looking for, never existed, and that would cause a crisis that would effectively end Han Learning in the 19th century.

At the same time, even though the philosophy of the Han Learning school undermined their project, they do form most of the basis for how I look at the world. I reject the rationalism of Zhu Xi and the possibility of sage enlightenment by pure thought, and the believe that reason should overcome emotion in all cases. Instead, my philosophy emphasizes the need to “seek truth from fact,” emphasizes moral uncertainty, and dismisses the possibility of moral perfectability. It also explains my interest in astronomy, law, and history, which are all efforts to understand the cosmic order.

Because I come from Han Learning rather than Song Learning, I also am at odds with those that would elevate Confucianism to a national religion or the “New Confucianism” which attempts to create a “secular religion.” I’d argue that by emphasizing the Song Learning/Buddhist need to go beyond feeling to rational thought that the “New Confucianism” creates a philosophy which is detached from the human experience.

There are a lot of differences between what I believe and what the Han Learning scholars believed. I’m nowhere as hostile toward Buddhism as they were. I live in a world where China is a nation-state is a rapidly globalizing world rather than a “world civilization.” I’m far more interested in physics and engineering than they were. And most importantly, I realize that their original goal won’t work. However, the basic philosophy of the evidential school outlives their original goals and leads naturally to the epistemology and methods of science in much the same way that medieval scholastics in Europe moved toward the philosophy of science, notwithstanding the fact that it destroyed their original goal (which was to mathematically and logically prove the existence of God).

December 18, 2006

Note on Michael Perelman blogs

Filed under: china, economics, history — twofish @ 5:31 pm

The problem with the explanation that tells you more about David Landes than about either China or Europe. Kenneth Pommeranz does a pretty good job in the great divergence at demolishing cultural explanation for China’s lack of industrialization.

As far as what I think is the reason. Look at the clothes you are wearing right now. They were not made in the factories of Europe but rather in the textile mills of China using massive amounts of cheap labor. One thing that China has done in the last few years is caused a massive deindustrialization in the world, as what used to be made with high capital industrial processes in the developed world, are now made with labor-intensive processes in China.

If the Chinese economy is causing a partial reversal of the industrial revolution *now*, then this suggests why the economic forces in China never caused an indigeneous industrial revolution in the 1800’s.

August 28, 2006


Filed under: academia, father, history — twofish @ 7:54 am

Speaking of relics of a bygone era….

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.

I also was reading Kennedy’s moon space. One of the things that impressed me after reading the speech again is the combination of lofty idealism with the hard noise bookkeepping “where is the money going to come from” thinking.

The most interesting paragraph in the moon speech is the last paragraph….

I have not asked for a single program which did not cause one or all Americans some inconvenience, or some hardship, or some sacrifice. But they have responded and you in the Congress have responded to your duty–and I feel confident in asking today for a similar response to these new and larger demands. It is heartening to know, as I journey abroad, that our country is united in its commitment to freedom and is ready to do its duty.

That gets me because I don’t remember the last time that an American politician in recent years who has asked people to sacrifice personal interest for the greater good.

Compare Kennedy’s 1961 speech with Bush’s 2006 and 2005 speech….

There is not a word in that speech about hardship, inconvenience, or pain.

There are two paragraphs from Kennedy’s 1961 speech that are relevant to the situation in Iraq, and I don’t recall Bush making any of these points in any speech he made.

Let it be clear–and this is a judgment which the Members of the Congress must finally make–let it be clear that I am asking the Congress and the country to accept a firm commitment to a new course of action, a course which will last for many years and carry very heavy costs: 531 million dollars in fiscal ’62–an estimated seven to nine billion dollars additional over the next five years. If we are to go only half way, or reduce our sights in the face of difficulty, in my judgment it would be better not to go at all.


I believe we should go to the moon. But I think every citizen of this country as well as the Members of the Congress should consider the matter carefully in making their judgment, to which we have given attention over many weeks and months, because it is a heavy burden, and there is no sense in agreeing or desiring that the United States take an affirmative position in outer space, unless we are prepared to do the work and bear the burdens to make it successful. If we are not, we should decide today and this year.

The other thing that I’ve noticed in reading Kennedy’s speechs is that winning the Cold War wasn’t merely military, but involved an integrated military and economic strategy. The Soviet Union ultimately wasn’t defeated by military means, but it was bankrupted.

Also if you look at the two speeches….

The one thing that stands out about Kennedy’s speech was how internationalist in character it was, and how there *wasn’t* any sense of historical inevitability.  The United States *could* have lost the Cold War, just as it *could* lose the Long War, and that fact focuses the mind in a way that Bush’s speech didn’t do.

The reason all of this is significant for me is that I’m starting to understand what it was in Kennedy that made my father such a fan of his.

July 28, 2006

The missing link and the smoking gun…..

Filed under: china, history, massachusetts institute of technology — twofish @ 4:08 am

Wow!!! I think I found something really cool!!!!!

OK. You read Benjamin Elman’s book about Chinese science in the Qing dynasty, and it ends in 1900, with the literati in the southern Yangtze valley doing astronomy and mathematics and using this for the Self-strengthening movement. Now you take a book about 20th century Chinese science, and it starts in the 1900. It’s the same people, and the book mentions in passing that they are from literati families, and they start forming societies like the Science Society and sending students off to Cornell and Yale. These two stories are linked. The early 20th century academic societies like the Science Society are *exactly* the same as the academic societies that had been forming in Zhejiang throughout the 19th century.

Here’s the smoking gun…….

The origins of the Evidential School in the early 17th century had to do with the fact that they believed that in the distant past there had been a golden age. The believed that the classical texts had been corrupted by Buddhist influence during the Song dynasty, and that it was necessary to carefully remove the corruption to return China to the golden age that had existed before the time of Confucius. They called their school, the school of “Han Learning” as opposed to the school of “Song Learning.”

Sounds a bit silly doesn’t it?

****Except that this is almost exactly the myth of Chinese stagnation that is in a lot of current textbooks****

Look at it. China was in some golden age of wealth and power until the Song dynasty and has been stagnating since the Song dynasty because of bad and oppressive Confucian philosophy. That’s what a lot of textbooks about China today say. They don’t realize it, but once you stare at it they are just copying a myth that was invented in China by Chinese in the early 18th century to justify the Han Learning school.

Now if you look at the actual evidence, China wasn’t continuous stagnanting since the Song dynasty. So where did the idea that it did come from? A lot of it came from Joseph Needham, who was fascinated by the “missed opportunities” of the Han dynasty. But I’m pretty sure that if you look closely, you’ll see it came from all those scientists that came out of the lower Yangtze valley in the early 20th century to Cornell and Yale.  But all of those early 20th century scholars came from literati families which meant that they were molded by the intellectual ideas of the 17th and 18th century, which included the idea that the philosophy of the Song dynasty had destroyed China.

One of the interesting books has been by Lionel Jensen in which he argued that Jesuit missionaries invented the idea of “Confucianism.” What it looks like to me is that the “myth of Chinese technological stagnation since the Song dynasty” seems to be have been invented in China by scholars of the 17th century.
One final thing.  A lot of what happens becomes a lot clearer if you stop the “nervous tick” of referring to scholars, literati, and bureaucrats as Confucian scholars, Confucian literati, and Confucian bureaucrats.  It’s just lot referring to a modern politician as a Aristolean politician.  It’s a “nervous tick” that has no meaning, and once you stop doing it, you suddenly realize that the “Confucian scholars” of 1890 were by and large historically contiguous with the “anti-Confucian scholars” of 1920’s.

July 27, 2006

Marriage, school, and 19th century China

Filed under: academia, china, father, history, Wife — twofish @ 11:50 am

One of the fun things about reading is that you learn a lot of interesting things that bring up questions. One useful question that I’ve found is to ask “so where did this idea come from anyway?” For example, it would be interesting for someone to do a paper (or point me to one) that talks about the idea that the “personal” and the “professional” should be separate just like the “science” and the “humanities” should be separate. I have a feeling that a lot of these ideas come from Adam Smith’s “The Wealth of Nations” which talks about specialization. However, there is probably a lot more to that than this.

Also, what are the historical roots of current ideas on dating, relationships, and marriage?

Anyway, I lot of what I went through at MIT and what I’m going through now, make a lot more sense now that I’ve read “Education and Society in Late Imperial China, 1600-1900” and its chapter on “The Education of Daughters in the Mid-Qing.” There is this paragraph….

In addition, the ideal of woman-as-scholar—popularized in the opera that retold the story of Chu Ying-t’ai—conflated scholarship and romance, and held out the possibility, very much alive during the Ch’ing period, of a companionate marriage that included intellectual exchange and shared aesthetic experiences as well as household management and reproduction. So fathers interested in educated women were also concerned about wives for their sons and husbands for their daughters: a good education for one’s child, regardless of gender, was a key to successful matchmaking in the upper classes.

Oh…. So now I get it. Something else, if you take the ideal of “woman as nuturer” to its conclusion, then you don’t end up with a Chinese woman in engineering or physics, you end up with them in biology and/or early childhood education. Hmmmmmm…..

Create a free website or blog at