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Politics by Other Means: Higher Education and Group Thinking
Politics by Other Means: Higher Education and Group Thinking
by David Bromwich
Edition: Paperback
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An exemplar of discernment, October 27, 2012
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Every once in a while I read a book that both meets and lifts my intellectual yearning. David Bromwich's Politics by Other Means is such a book.

Bromwich shows how both the static right of American politics and the self-contained left of American higher education, both the "culture of assent" and the "culture of suspicion," reinforce group thinking and impede thoughtful intellectual discourse. First published twenty years ago, the book gives more insight into the problems of education today than many a recent work I have read.

It is Bromwich's careful and discerning argument that distinguishes this book from most. He makes illuminating distinctions between seemingly similar assertions. He disassembles and examines many oft-bandied catch phrases and terms (such as "values" and "mass culture"). It is easy enough to say that the right and left are insular and misguided; it's another matter to explain how. Bromwich's explanation unsettled me in the best of ways, as it made me reconsider some of my own assumptions.

He distinguishes between (a) studying tradition in order to adopt a set of pre-established views and (b) studying tradition in order to think about it independently and take part in conversation about it. He shows how George F. Will and other self-proclaimed conservatives not only differ fundamentally from Edmund Burke, whom they regard as a predecessor, but do not merit the claimed inheritance.

He shows the deep problems (not just the immediately obvious ones) with the trend toward teaching mass culture in literature departments--which occurs in a larger context of "professionalization." The one who "specializes" in mass culture has the triple advantage of supposedly relating to the people, being unassailable by colleagues, and having a claim to a "marginal" field.

I was fascinated by his commentary on Burke and Mill (and Hume and Butler) and by his analyses of literary study and the change it has undergone. I bring these up in the same sentence because some of the dangers of which Burke and Mill warned became the reality of the literary academy. As it replaced the study of literature with the study of theory, the literary academy lost both its "historical imagination" and the experience needed for attentive reading.

One of Bromwich's most intriguing observations occurs on p. 130, when he writes, "Dependence and group-narcissism are the paralysis of genuine scholarship; but scholars, like citizens, to whom that seems a healthy state of things will always invoke the argument of growing solitude." (He then quotes Nietzsche to provide the source and original context of the phrase "growing solitude"). Indeed, those who welcome group thinking tend to be the very ones who suggest that there's too much solitude. Solitude, Bromwich suggests, is in part a discipline of the mind: the ability to work without regard for popularity or immediate approval.

Occasionally I find myself disagreeing with Bromwich or disputing his reasoning--but that's a sign of a book that has me thinking along with it, replying to it, questioning it. Something would be wrong--and counter to the book's spirit--if I accepted everything in it without question. For instance, Bromwich objects to the conformism inherent in the phrase "we need," but I see room for this phrase, provided one uses it judiciously. Bromwich is right, but I'd qualify his point.

One of my favorite passages is in the third chapter, where Bromwich states that "conversation offers a place for coming to know something quite different from what one had known before." Reading the book was a conversation of this kind, a conversation I have longed for. I had just been remarking how rare the art of conversation has become--how frequently and unabashedly people interrupt each other, switch topics, or reduce an exchange of ideas to "whatever." Politics by Other Means invites the reader to the best kind of conversation, the kind that transforms at least one of the participants. I hope to continue this conversation by reading the book again.
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A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter
A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter
by William Deresiewicz
Edition: Hardcover
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85 of 86 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "the sweetest form of usefulness", May 2, 2011
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I came to this book with excitement and skepticism--excitement because I already admired the author's writing, and skepticism because I am wary of books that tell about "what such-and-such means to me in my personal life." A book about what someone learned about life from the novels of Jane Austen? Could I trust in such a thing?

Well, I am actually glad for the mild initial skepticism, because it put me in the author's shoes. I could see myself in the author as he describes himself at the outset--sarcastic, rebellious, and (in his view) too intelligent for everything around him. And so, as I read the book, I was able to enter its lessons, one by one.

Each thing Deresiewicz learned from Austen's work came not from a first reading, not from a quick reaction, but from a slow sinking into the work. As he takes the reader into each novel, as he leaves behind his own misconceptions of it, something remarkable starts to happen. The whole book is about close listening and the slow process of growing up. And it is about coming to love the work of an author--not adoring it immediately, not getting it right away, but discovering, over time, what it is really about. In the first chapter. Deresiewicz writes, on pages 12-13:

"I returned to the novel in a completely different frame of mind. Mr. Woodhouse's banalities, Miss Bates's monologues, all that gossip and small talk--Austen put them in as a sign that she respected her characters, not because she wanted us to look down on them. She was willing to listen to what they had to say, and she wanted me to listen, too. As long as I had treated such passages as filler and hurried through them, they had seemed impossibly dull. But once I started to slow down enough to take them on their own terms, I found that they possessed their own gravity, their own dignity, their own sweetness."

Likewise, the way he tells his story, it possesses its own gravity, dignity, and sweetness (and candor and roughness and wit). He doesn't mince words, about his family, his acquaintances, or himself. But the stories are not gratuitous or indulgent; again and again they lift into an understanding and come back to Austen and her work.

The book's lessons can be found in any life. The way the author tells them, it seems to me that I am learning them now, whether in fact I learned them long ago, am in the midst of learning them, or haven't learned them yet. By the end, I was actually beaming. I won't say more.
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Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other
Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other
by Sherry Turkle
Edition: Hardcover
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205 of 211 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars No robot could have written this, February 16, 2011
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That was one of my thoughts as I read Sherry Turkle's Alone Together: no matter what robots learn to do, they will never learn to write a book as thoughtful, informative, and intense as Alone Together. They would not know how to pose the questions, let alone use such discernment in addressing them.

It is interesting that Turkle chose to discuss robots in the first part of the book and the Internet in the second part. By presenting the "strange" part first, she gives us a sense of how strange our everyday lives actually are, how far we have moved away from enjoying each other's presence.

Turkle quotes children and adults who hesitate to use the phone because it seems awkward and intrusive; it is much easier, they say, to dash off a text or email. At the same time, Turkle points out, because of this very convenience, people expect quick responses. She describes the anxiety of teenagers when they do not get an immediate reply to their text messages. One girl talks about needing her cell phone for "emergencies"; it turns out that what she means by "emergency" is having a feeling without being able to share it.

Turkle shows how our Internet communications mix the deliberate with the unconsidered. On the one hand, people put great effort even into short email messages. On the other, they "test" ideas and expressions in formation to see how others react. Some create fake online profiles just to try out different sides of their personality. The problem with such experimentation is that it is conditioned almost entirely by online reactions, often reactions of strangers. There is little room to form thoughts independently.

Throughout the book, Turkle brings up the question of solitude. What happens to our solitude when we are able to get responses to anything and are expected to provide responses in turn? What happens to our sense of dissent when everything we say and do online bears a trace? She points out how important privacy is to dissent, for if we have no place where we can think and act unseen, we end up policing ourselves and censoring our own thoughts. We tame and restrain ourselves, knowing that anything we do and say may end up "out there" forever. "But sometimes a citizenry should not simply 'be good,'" Turkle writes. "You have to leave space for dissent, real dissent."

Also, Turkle points out, when we have no privacy we lose the ability to privilege some thoughts and actions over others. She quotes Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, who says that "if you have something you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place." Like many others, he ignores the possibility that there might be privacy without shame or crime. We might want to keep things to ourselves for any number of reasons; when we "put everything out there," that "everything" is somehow trivialized. Turkle quotes a girl who claims there's nothing much to know about her; "I'm kind of boring." Will the loss of privacy lead more people to dismiss themselves as boring?

One of Turkle's most powerful points is that we have come "to take the performance of emotion as emotion enough." Who cares, some might say, if the robot cannot feel? It behaves as though it feels, and that's enough. But is it? I see similar assumptions in education, where test scores are equated with learning, and students' visible activity in class is equated with "engagement." How do you go about defending something that is not tangible, visible, or measurable? It is difficult, but Turkle does it.

Because this book is so informative, because Turkle understands the complexities of technologies, she can make bold statements. She insists that we have the capacity and obligation to question the principles behind new inventions. She suggests that the touch of a human hand is indeed different from a robot's, that a handwritten letter is different from a text, that thinking and remembering have value even when it seems there's no more time for them. I won't give away the ending, but it left me with a surprising sadness, as though in a movie theater, when it's over and the place is dark, and you sit there for a few minutes, stunned, before getting up and walking out into the blink-provoking street.
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First Democracy: The Challenge of an Ancient Idea
First Democracy: The Challenge of an Ancient Idea
by Paul Woodruff
Edition: Paperback
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A book to keep nearby, January 29, 2011
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This is not a book that I read and put away. I have it on my desk now so that I can return to favorite passages. Eloquently and urgently, Paul Woodruff explains what democracy is, drawing on ancient Greek literature while pointing out some of the weaknesses of Athenian democracy. His underlying argument is that we have to understand what it is in order to defend it. If we fall for any of democracy's "doubles," as he puts it, we will end up with something far from democracy. The most insidious of democracy's "doubles" is majority rule, which justifies the suppression of dissenting views.

One of the most interesting (and, at first, perplexing) concepts in the book is "reasoning without knowledge." At first I thought: how could Woodruff be arguing for "reasoning without knowledge" and for common education, "paideia," at the same time? Well, by "reasoning without knowledge" he does not mean uninformed or ignorant reasoning; rather, he means reasoning without full knowledge of the matter at hand or its outcome. Education is essential to such reasoning, as the participants must have a common language. For the Greeks, much of this common language was poetry, and one can see why.

One thing I especially love about the book is how Woodruff keeps coming back to Sophocles' Antigone. You can tell when Antigone is about to come up; the language starts hinting at it, and you know Creon or the Chorus is around the corner. In some ways the book seems to be a meditation on Antigone. I look forward to reading it again in that light. I am glad to have this book nearby.

The Revisionists Revised: A Critique of the Radical Attack on the Schools
The Revisionists Revised: A Critique of the Radical Attack on the Schools
by Diane Ravitch
Edition: Hardcover
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An inspiring critique of critiques, January 3, 2011
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In The Revisionists Revised, Diane Ravitch analyzes and criticizes radical critiques of the public schools--that is, critiques that portray the public schools as instruments of deliberate oppression. The author demonstrates that these critiques are often based on poor scholarship, including logical errors and errors of research. The book is an excellent guide for good historical writing and writing overall; indirectly, through its examples, it shows some pitfalls to avoid, some cautions to take, some questions to ask oneself.

The author points out and takes apart three fundamental assumptions of radical revisionists: (1) a belief in social and economic determinism (e.g., class analysis); (2) belief in a one-to-one correspondence between the effects of a policy and the intentions of its creators; and (3) belief that the structure of an institution determines its policies. It is not that the radicals' methods lack all value, the author argues, but they must be applied with care: "When applied rigorously, [class analysis] may add some explanatory power to historical interpretation, but the historian must take care not to stress a single dimension of human motivation to the exclusion of all others."

By no means does the book portray the revisionists as monolithic or static. Ravitch describes how some radical revisionists, such as Stephan Thernstrom and Joel Spring, modified their views over time and grounded them more in reality. Regarding Spring's modifications in The Sorting Machine, the author writes, "The Sorting Machine suggests the possibility that the radical-anarchist orientation, when grounded in a realistic appraisal of American politics and disciplined by historical craftsmanship, might make important contributions to our understanding of educational policy." (In fact, Thernstrom described The Revisionists Revised as "a lively, searching, and judicious critique.")

Thus the book is not anti-radical per se. It is opposed to careless historical analysis, to the kind of analysis with a predetermined conclusion. The author cites many examples of sloppy radical analysis, some of them astounding. For example, James D. Anderson claimed that Bishop Halsey, an African American bishop who testified to a Senate committee in 1885 about his self-education, had learned to read by studying graves in the woods. This was not the case; Anderson had drawn this conclusion from a subtitle in Halsey's testimony that read, "Grave Studies in the Woods" ("grave" meaning "serious"). Another remarkable example: Paul Violas found traits of fascism in Jane Addams's support for public games, folk dancing, choral groups, festivals, and parades; he wrote that her "concept of social control through mass psychology carried inherent implications for manipulation of the masses." Ravitch comments, "This suggestion that Jane Addams's appeal for more parks, more gymnasia, more sports and games, and more street music was an expression of incipient totalitarianism is simply incredible."

The book concludes by expressing hope that we can look at our schools and our history realistically. Ravitch affirms that "it is possible to see American history as something other than a road map to heaven or hell." (The word "is" is italicized.) To judge our schools fairly, in order to have a chance at improving them, "it is necessary to abandon the simplistic search for heroes and devils, for scapegoats and panaceas." I heartily agree. This is a rich and inspiring book--a criticism not only of the revisionists themselves, but of logical errors and distortions to which we are all susceptible.
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Seize the Day (Penguin Classics)
Seize the Day (Penguin Classics)
by Saul Bellow
Edition: Paperback
Price: $10.92
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5.0 out of 5 stars "If thee thyself couldst only see....", December 13, 2010
I would love to give this book to all of my friends--under the condition that they read it. But since I make no such demands of my friends (having my own backlog of unread books, and not always liking the books I am given), I can only hope that people will come to it on their own.

Seize the Day reads like a poem--taut, inevitable, every detail propelling the story and meaning. It is hilarious up until the end, but with brooding sadness mixed in. It plays with the preposterous and possible, the phony and genuine; the elusive (but "present") psychologist Tamkin is a mixture of them all.

Tamkin's ridiculously bad (but sincere) poem gives me bellyaches. I will quote the first four lines.

If thee thyself couldst only see
Thy greatness that is and yet to be,
Thou would feel joy-beauty-what ecstasy.
They are at thy feet, earth-moon-sea, the trinity.

Tommy Wilhelm is overwhelmed by his losses and cannot even find the right words for them. There are hints of Job throughout, but an American, adolescent-middle-aged Job, whose laments are as profound as they are silly. (One of my favorite parts is where he uses the phrase "a question of morale," and his father suggests that he meant "moral question." He becomes flustered and tries to justify his word choice.) At the end Wilhelm finds a place--but how, and what this means, I won't say here. It is worth reading the book in order to find out.

What Is the Good Life?
What Is the Good Life?
by Luc Ferry
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $43.87
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9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A stunning and important book, November 15, 2010
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This review is from: What Is the Good Life? (Hardcover)
Luc Ferry's What Is the Good Life? asks whether it is possible to come to a transcendent understanding of the good life in a world that regards success largely in terms of money and prestige. The answer is yes; but the reasons are what make the book so interesting. Ferry takes the reader through some of the most perplexing philosophical dilemmas regarding the good life--from the seeming contradictions in Nietzsche, to the question of free will in Stoic philosophy, to the relation between Greek philosophy and Christianity, and onward. The book is at once scholarly and spiritual; it provides excellent background and commentary while addressing questions that affect every life.

I have read the book twice now, and both times I have emerged with my mind singing. It is not breezy reading, but it is well within the grasp of the layperson. One must take time with it and sometimes pause to reread a passage. It is worth the effort. There are wonderful quotes from philosophy and literature--works that I want to read or reread in full. The quotes of Epictetus, Donne, and Hugo are among my favorites.

The minor points along the way are as interesting and compelling as the overall argument. For instance, on page 13, Ferry points out that while jealousy has always existed, modern-day envy is deeply affected by our lack of a sense of the "beyond." That is, there is no reparation for our failures; if we see someone doing better, we take this as a judgment on ourselves. There is no later; we believe we are supposed to have a better life right away, and the only place we can find it is "where it's happening." I have seen evidence of this in our schools, whose success is measured by their immediate results, and on the Internet, where great value is placed on minute-to-minute updates and being in on "the latest."

The book does not call for a return to religion or philosophy of the past; instead, it points to a view that is both responsive to the modern world and resonant with insights that have retained their meaning over the centuries. But I will not give away the ending.

One of the signs of an excellent book (especially on a subject like philosophy) is that it takes you to other books. I found the Epictetus quotes so striking that I started reading Epictetus's Discourses. I am very glad that I did.

I hope that many will find their way to this book.

How We Reason
How We Reason
by P. N. Johnson-Laird
Edition: Paperback
Price: $47.45
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars intriguing, challenging, and beautiful, October 5, 2010
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This book has earned my confidence, not only because of the author's excellent writing and argument but because he acknowledges how little we know about human reason.

I have found myself thinking about certain chapters when taking walks--for instance, "The Puzzles of If," where Professor Johnson-Laird shows that "if-then" statements (presumably straightforward) actually come in great variety and require different kinds of reasoning.

The chapter on the Wright brothers should be required reading for aspiring teachers. Children are often told that the Wright brothers were successful because they never gave up. Certainly their perseverance helped, but it was not enough in itself. Johnson-Laird argues convincingly that what set them apart was their reasoning. He explains this in detail--and the details are much more intersting than bland stories about how they kept on trying and never gave up.

The central argument about mental models is compelling, and I enjoy everything along the way--the logic puzzles, the descriptions of experiments, the stories. There are just a few flaws in wording that I have spotted. For instance, on p. 161, it reads, "Is it true that optimists believe that optimists exist?" In order to make sense in context, it really should read, "Is it true that an optimist is anyone who believes that optimists exist?" But that is a minor quibble.

The Auden quotes are wonderful throughout, both in themselves and in relation to the text. I am grateful that the author stayed with Auden instead of quoting from many different authors. It seems that this may have something to do with the spirit of the book. Good reasoning is not flighty.

One more thing I appreciate: the book has meaning for the layperson and scholar alike. It is written in clear, lively language, and it does not condescend. There is no trace of jargon or anything faddish. The author even casts doubt on some of his own ideas.

One of the Auden quotes (from his poem "Natural Linguistics") reads,

"signals of interrogation, friendship, threat and appeasement,
instantly taken in, seldom, if ever, misread."

One could say this for the intellectual honesty of the book, which comes through both instantly and slowly.
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As If You Were the Sea
As If You Were the Sea
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5.0 out of 5 stars songs that do not leave the mind, April 13, 2010
This review is from: As If You Were the Sea (Audio CD)
The songs of Art of Flying are the kind that I carry around and sing to myself and hear in my mind in many places. It is hard not to grow attached to the duet of David Costanza and Anne Speroni, the rich sounds, memorable melodies that sometimes seem like ancient folk songs, sometimes like treks into the unknown, and lyrics that fearlessly invoke moon, sea, and stars without cynicism or naivete. In fact, that is one of the things I love about the songs: they are neither naive nor cynical. The songs themselves have a quality of listening.

This album has some of their treasures: in particular, "What the Magpie Said," "Song for Coins Tossed," "Sailor's Song," "Song for Orion," "Butterfly Song," "Night Withered," and my favorite of all, "Born to Follow."

Art of Flying has been recording albums for years--each one is wonderful and distinct from the rest. It is hard to name a favorite, but for those looking for an introduction to their music, I highly recommend "Garden of Earthly Delights" in addition to this. I hope that there will be many more.

The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education
The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education
by Diane Ravitch
Edition: Hardcover
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168 of 180 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A book of warning and wisdom, February 17, 2010
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This is a wonderful book. With precision and soul, Diane Ravitch shows why our present-day education reforms are likely to do more harm than good: they are based on ideas extraneous to education and too often ignore its content. Closure, breakup, privatization of schools, rigid pedagogical models, teacher evaluations based on test scores--none of these reforms addresses why and what we are teaching in the first place. No Child Left Behind gave us accountability without substance; worse, it gave us "a timetable for the demolition of public education in the United States." Charter schools in themselves are no solution; they vary widely in quality and as a whole have not outperformed public schools. Small schools are no solution; they may lack many of the resources of larger schools, and some small-school initiatives have proven disastrous.

In chapter 1, Ravitch writes, "School reformers sometimes resemble the characters in Dr. Seuss's Solla Sollew, who are always searching for that mythical land `where they never have troubles, at least very few.' Or like Dumbo, they are convinced they could fly if only they had a magic feather. In my writings, I have consistently warned that, in education, there are no shortcuts, no utopias, and no silver bullets. For certain, there are no magic feathers that enable elephants to fly."

Through fascinating analyses, narratives, interviews, and descriptions, Ravitch shows how our education reformers miss the mark again and again. But the book is far from despondent. There is much we can do, Ravitch argues, if we honor the substance of education and give our schools the support they need. This book should long outlast the reforms criticized in its pages. Its prose and principles stand strong against the times.
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