Swords Against Death

A great headline: "Violent Crimes Drop 12%, Reason Unknown; In Other News, Record Number Of Americans Carrying Concealed Weapons."

H/t to The Sage. The title, as most of you surely know, is a reference to Fritz Leiber's second short story collection. If you haven't read it, by all means you ought to do so.

Strong Women Belong in the Home

I'm not sure how sympathetic I am to these complaints.  On the one hand, I think, of course it's true:  and what did you expect? On the other hand, it's hard to accept a complaint from someone in the top 1% of influential people that they are ignored compared to the people in the top 0.5%.  It's true, as far as it goes; but nevertheless, you're at the table, and if you aren't "called on" you can still speak up on your own.  That's more influence than whole the TEA Party has on the President's economic policy, or would have even if they marched two million strong outside his house.

Leaving all of which aside, this is the worst defense against claims of sexism that I've ever seen:
“The president is someone who when he goes home at night he goes home to house full of very strong women,” Dunn added.
There's no way that is going to fly.

An Execution in Georgia

The State of Georgia has the death penalty, but uses it fairly rarely.  Of the 1,267 people executed by the United States since the restoration of the death penalty in 1976, only 51 have been from Georgia.

We've got one coming up next week that has gotten a great deal of attention.  One of the problems with protesting an execution is that all of them get protested by certain groups organized for the purpose, which makes it hard to generate interest when there may be genuine doubts about the guilt of the accused.  

Is it important, or telling, when a case is successful in generating broad interest in opposing the court's findings?  The New York Times seems to believe that the reason there is so much interest in this case is primarily the success of the media campaign, and only secondarily the questions the case raises.

The victim of the killing was a Savannah police officer.  His mother believes the verdict is just:
His mother, Anneliese MacPhail, called the widespread rallies "a circus," saying, "It makes me angry. They better learn that he is guilty." 
She believes the case is being used by death penalty opponents to futher their cause  regardless of the facts. 
"It's not being told in an honest way," said MacPhail, 77, of Columbus.
Unlike any of us, Ms. McPhail doubtlessly paid rapt attention to the trial and the presentation of evidence.  On the other hand, as a mother it may be difficult to endorse the idea that the court was wrong, the punishment set aside, and the death of your son unavenged.

If you feel qualified to express an opinion on the subject, you may reach the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles at the address provided here.  The United Church of Christ, like the Pope, is among those urging that the execution be set aside; indeed, UCC believes that the accused should be pardoned outright.

"Constructions of Masculinity in Contemporary Zamoran Literature"

Mr. Sparkle sends this cache of the Trinity College, Dublin, webpage in which Trinity introduces its newest Fellow.  I salute Dr. B's interest in post-colonial studies, as it must be honestly come by:  at least, I am sure that no one ever successfully colonized Cimmeria!

Article I, Section 8, Clause 8

We hear a lot about gridlock, but most of the gridlock results from the fact that there is a huge disagreement about the proper role and function of the government.  It may be pleasing to know that, in cases when there is common agreement that the Congress has clear and legitimate authority, it is sometimes easy to get legislation passed.

Calling the SEC on Social Security

You have to feel a bit bad for the poor woman with whom he speaks.

The real question isn't whether Social Security is a Ponzi scheme -- or, as Paul Krugman prefers, a "Ponzi game."  (Games are fun!)

The real question is just when the government may properly force Americans to make a bad investment.  The answer probably cannot be "never," because it is often difficult to determine if an investment is good or bad:  and, indeed, some of the best investments start off as highly questionable ventures that prove out only because of a combination of faith, luck, and talent.

On the other hand, there are a few models -- like this one -- that are reliably bad investments.  There are also times when (as John Stewart notes in his praise for "faceless bureaucrats" in this clip) the investment's problems are sufficiently obvious that a taxpayer might reasonably object to having their hard-earned money soaked into the venture.

Should there be a protection for citizens from being taxed to support ventures that are reliably bad investments?  That seems reasonable to me.  The second type of case is harder to answer.


Steven Pinker, a philosopher with whose views I generally do not accord, has a good review of a book on self-control.  While some neuroscientists have used their work to cast doubt on free will and autonomy, their lessons properly interpreted are showing us new ways of exercising command over the machine.
Immediately after students engage in a task that requires them to control their impulses — resisting cookies while hungry, tracking a boring display while ignoring a comedy video, writing down their thoughts without thinking about a polar bear or suppressing their emotions while watching the scene in "Terms of Endearment" in which a dying Debra Winger says goodbye to her children — they show lapses in a subsequent task that also requires an exercise of willpower, like solving difficult puzzles, squeezing a handgrip, stifling sexual or violent thoughts and keeping their payment for participating in the study rather than immediately blowing it on Doritos. Baumeister tagged the effect “ego depletion,” using Freud’s sense of “ego” as the mental entity that controls the passions.

Baumeister then pushed the muscle metaphor even further by showing that a depleted ego can be invigorated by a sugary pick-me-up (though not an indistinguishable beverage containing diet sweetener). And he showed that self-control, though almost certainly heritable in part, can be toned up by exercising it. He enrolled students in regimens that required them to keep track of their eating, exercise regularly, use a mouse with their weaker hand or (one that really gave them a workout) speak in complete sentences and without swearing. After several weeks, the students were more resistant to ego depletion in the lab and showed greater self-control in their lives.

Now that you know this, you have another toolset for exercising autonomy.  Your unconscious mind may be making decisions from moment to moment before the issue rises to your conscious control:  but if you set long-term goals, and keep track of adherence to them, you can steer.

If you find yourself having trouble, eat some chocolate, drink some soda, and then get back to it.


Lars Walker has a good insight.

The "May Day Carol" is my favorite hymn on the subject of repentance.  It's a concept not much in vogue, but of eternal power for those who find it.  Mr. Walker's understanding that repentance is fundamentally an act of courage is even more true for those who live in an age that will not understand, and will therefore not support, the difficult sacrifice.

A Girl and Her Dog

He's supposed to be my dog.  Sometimes when they get to playing together, he seems to forget.

Libraries and Sex Offenders

The Volokh Conspiracy (these days, I suppose we could abbreviate that to "VC," but I still prefer not to do so) questions whether Tennessee can Constitutionally, under the First Amendment, ban sex offenders from libraries. There are some interesting points raised by the logic.
But content-neutral limitations on who may access this government property are, I think, constitutional so long as they are reasonable in light of the purposes to which the government chooses to dedicate the property. And while I’m not sure that such a policy is likely to be especially effective, I do think it passes the rather low bar of reasonableness, given the government’s purpose of providing an especially safe environment for children, an environment that parents and children will be eager to take advantage of.
It's also reasonable given that female librarians outnumber male ones by approximately 4-1. The link is to a study of gender-bias against males who work in libraries, which include "being expected to handle physical tasks such as moving furniture, [and] being expected to work night or weekend shifts for security[.]"

That is the sort of bias which, although I suppose it really is bias, accords with rather than offends good sense. On average, men will be better suited for moving furniture; and although men are more likely to be victims of violent crime than are women, the exception to that is the crime of rape (see table 5, which estimates that women suffer rape at about ten times the rate of men).

I've spent a fair amount of my life in libraries, and it's fairly common for there to be no men at all who work in them (although, as the article notes, that is less true at academic libraries, where the ration is merely 3-1 female-male). Often libraries close after dark, and someone is going to have to stay behind to close when the most of the staff goes home. Since public libraries are public places, you can't remove people from them without some sort of legal reason. Imagine not having the capacity to remove a registered sex offender who simply came into the library every day, who sat quietly but often stared at the women behind the desks. This is surely the kind of work environment that would be considered hostile! It may also be dangerous, as stalking often is a precondition for rape, as the focus of the stalker on his victim intensifies over time. Yet the man in question is not causing a disturbance, is not a co-worker who can be punished administratively, and so forth. There needs to be a lawful cause that authorizes the police to ask him to leave if they are requested to do so. Surely this is reasonable.

UPDATE: However, I agree with Dr. Reynold's commenter: the reasonable nature of the law depends to a large degree on keeping the definition of "sex offender" pretty tight. "Not only are the punishments becoming more petty; the definition of ‘sex offender’ becomes more petty by the day. For instance, in many jurisdictions you don’t want to get caught answering nature’s emergency call by the side of the road. Who knew such distress could someday cause the yanking of your library card?"

The failure of reason here, however, isn't in keeping rapists and pedophiles out of libraries; it lies in exploding the category of "sex offender."

True Virtue

Seligman and Peterson consulted works from Aristotle to Confucius, from the Upanishads to the Torah, from the Boy Scout Handbook to profiles of Pokémon characters, and they settled on 24 character strengths common to all cultures and eras. The list included some we think of as traditional noble traits, like bravery, citizenship, fairness, wisdom and integrity; others that veer into the emotional realm, like love, humor, zest and appreciation of beauty; and still others that are more concerned with day-to-day human interactions: social intelligence (the ability to recognize interpersonal dynamics and adapt quickly to different social situations), kindness, self-regulation, gratitude.

In most societies, Seligman and Peterson wrote, these strengths were considered to have a moral valence, and in many cases they overlapped with religious laws and strictures. But their true importance did not come from their relationship to any system of ethics or moral laws but from their practical benefit: cultivating these strengths represented a reliable path to “the good life,” a life that was not just happy but also meaningful and fulfilling.

These are things that I have sometimes called true or absolute virtues. No matter what your goals, or your other moral values, courage is a virtue for you: it will help you achieve them. An ability to understand your duty and to command yourself to fulfill it will be useful to every man, and every woman, and every child. This moral reality is embedded in the structure of the world.

Emotional Certainty is Usually Wrong

Via our friends at Brandywine Books, a review of On Being Certain. The subject is that feeling of certainty that you have in your gut, which tells you that something "just feels right" regardless of the evidence.

That feeling is generally unreliable, the book finds. I trust this won't surprise you; but it does touch on another issue that we have discussed here from time to time. That issue is free will, given the prevalence of the subconscious mind in our thinking.

Another idea that I’d heard about before but gets replayed here is the notion that the brain understands and reacts to some situations before conscious perception can possibly intervene. Burton highlights this activity in two cases: baseball players hitting a fastball and piano players doing long, fast runs up and down the keys. In both cases, the movements involved are too fast for the conscious mind to intervene. (In baseball in particular, the body has to start moving before the perceptual process finishes alerting the conscious brain that a ball is on the way.)
Our friends at Arts & Letters Daily linked to a good article on contemporary neuroscience, and the questions it raises for advocates of free will.
"Part of what's driving some of these conclusions is the thought that free will has to be spiritual or involve souls or something," says Al Mele, a philosopher at Florida State University in Tallahassee. If neuroscientists find unconscious neural activity that drives decision-making, the troublesome concept of mind as separate from body disappears, as does free will. This 'dualist' conception of free will is an easy target for neuroscientists to knock down, says Glannon. "Neatly dividing mind and brain makes it easier for neuroscientists to drive a wedge between them," he adds.

The trouble is, most current philosophers don't think about free will like that, says Mele. Many are materialists — believing that everything has a physical basis, and decisions and actions come from brain activity. So scientists are weighing in on a notion that philosophers consider irrelevant.

I wrote about this problem There is no problem for free will here, not even for dualists; but it is free will of Aristotle's type. Indeed, the point about pianos and baseball players makes the point. Yes, the conscious mind cannot intervene in catching a speeding baseball; but the habits that permit such processing to produce the desired results were developed as a free choice, corresponding to a vision of beauty.

You did not become a baseball player in the same way that ice melts because the sun strikes it: that is, you did not become a baseballer because you were acted on by an outside force that drove you to practice day in and day out. Rather, you became a baseball player because you wanted it. You built the habits, and developed the necessary virtues, so that your body would execute them when you didn't have time to think about it just as it would have if you had all the time in the world.

That was Aristotle's picture all along. He understood that often you would not have time to reason, but this did not undermine his idea that your rational nature made you free. It was particularly important to him that a man with the virtue of courage be courageous when there was no time to think about it: otherwise, courage was of no use in the kinds of situations when it matters most.

The Vaccine Issue

Rep. Bachmann hasn't settled up on the vaccine issue yet, but the question has caused quite a few people on the right to slam her hard. It's not too surprising to see relatively establishment publications like NRO go after her, as they are generally opposed to candidates outside of a narrow portion of the Republican Party: I remember their upset in 2008 over Huckabee's early strong performances.

There is a more damaging account from Powerline, where an apparent supporter is backing off of her candidacy over the matter.

Up to now I’ve thought Michele Bachman was the most impressive performer in the GOP field, going toe-to-toe with the “big boys” in the field, out-arguing them on several occasions, and introducing serious constitutional arguments that the rest of the field (even Perry) are too timid to attempt. She’s right to go after Rick Perry on the issue of mandating the use of the Gardisil vaccine, along with the issue of “crony capitalism,” both of which get at the issue of a potential president’s sense of the reach and limits of state power. Perry is a mixed bag on this (as is Romney obviously) and he should be pressed hard to explain himself and refine his views.

But her embrace of the wacko idea that the vaccine is dangerous or causes autism, mental retardation, or other risks is simply irresponsible.

The post is titled "Giving up on Bachmann," which is a farther step than I would take at this time. The very facts he cites are reason enough to explain why. We have already reached a stage in the election at which the President of 2013 is going to be one of four or perhaps five people. We are well beyond the point at which we can imagine an ideal candidate, and are now choosing among a narrow menu. Of the four likely options, I would rank them roughly as follows:

1) Rep. Bachmann
2) Gov. Perry
3) Pres. Obama
4) Former Gov. Romney

Romney comes in last for me because, on the merits, he is very close to President Obama; but he would have two terms, and an incumbent's advantage in 2016. If we cannot win this election for whatever reason, it would be better to accept four years of a lame-duck of proven ineffectiveness than risk eight years of a potentially more effective politician of the same general type.

Nevertheless, this is an important moment in judging whether Rep. Bachmann will be fit for the office. I have some sympathy for anyone who is tired of being told that a given position is unacceptable politically because 'the science is settled'; the claim misunderstands the nature of science, which is never settled, and should not be accepted on authority. I'm willing to give the Representative time to work through the issue carefully, allowing for the duties of her office and the rigors of the campaign.

Still, when she has had that time, we will need to see that she can accept and properly evaluate new evidence on the merits. That will be an important feature of a President.


While I agree that this sort of thing is both ugly and improper, I think it shows a remarkable sense of optimism by the President's re-election team. After all, look at the mission statement:
"Forming the first line of defense against a barrage of misinformation won't be easy," Messina wrote in a fundraising email to campaign supporters. "Our success will depend on a team of researchers and writers to stay on the lookout for false claims about the President and his record, bring you the facts, and hold our opposition accountable."
It's sort of charming that they still believe that the chief danger to the President's re-election hopes is "false claims" about the President's record. In fairness, I suppose, the 2008 election featured a tremendous number of such charges -- not about then-Senator Obama especially, but also pointed at then-Senator Clinton and then-Governor Palin.

2008 was an election without an incumbent, though. There's a lot less room for that sort of thing against a sitting President, who is going to be pretty well known by everyone. President Obama's opponents may be subject to false charges or revisionist attacks on what was previously accepted by everyone; but the President himself, for better or worse, is not going to face that problem. He is going to have to run against what people know about him, not what they merely believe.


I'm not sure what exactly has happened, except that Blogger appears to have decided to force the blog into some new template. Apparently the existing format was lost entirely. It doesn't seem to be reading the old Haloscan data for comments, either.

I don't know if I can fix this, or if we are stuck with it. I may have to learn the new system, which I hate doing. There was no notification or anything; but you get what you pay for, I guess, and Blogger is free.

UPDATE: I've done the best I can with it, with the time I have. It uses a kind of code I don't happen to know, rather than the old style HTML. Until I have time to learn the new code, the color-changing feature is broken. I set it to the burgundy color because of T99's very strong preference for it. I'm working on trying to import the old comments into a new commenting system called Disqus. I was able to export them from the old Echo system, but we'll see if I can get them re-loaded properly. Some bloggers seem to have had success doing so, though.

The New Dark Ages

Dad29's comment below points to this essay on the collapse of civilization, which dovetails with another piece I was reading today. Here is the substance of the complaint:
Ours will be a stranger Dark Age than the old one. Our peasants brush their teeth and wash, imagine themselves of the middle class, but their heads are empty.... they do not quite burn books but simply ignore them....

Yet ours is a curious bleakness. Good things of everywhere and all time lie free for the having. When I was a child, you went to a library for books and the libraries often didn't have many. Today you can get even the Chinese classics, or those of Greece and Rome, or almost any book ever written in any language, from the web in five minutes. Do you want Marvin Minsky on finite automata? Papinian and Ulpian on Roman law? Balzac? Raymond Chandler? Tolkien? All are there. The same is true for any music, any painting, any movie, almost any historical curiosity: Ozzie and Harriet, Captain Video, Plastic Man. You can have cultivated friends in Kanmandu or Yuyuni in the Bolivian alitplano, and talk to them face-to-face with Skype.

This is a point that Eric Blair makes from time to time, and it's a good one. We have access to wonderful things; yet somehow the culture worsens rather than improves. The greatest music ever composed or performed is available almost free, or entirely free if it is on YouTube; and yet the music that fills the public space is among the worst. It is not that the subject matter is so often sexual, as some of the greatest poetry or plays are erotic. It is that they are banal. If they bother to attempt any actual poetry in their lyrics, it is unimaginative and dull. Only sometimes is there a melody, and if there is it shows no novelty (indeed, it is often sampled from some other song that the 'artist' happens to know). If the singer bothers with a melody, they certainly don't bother to hit the notes: that is done digitally. Increasingly they seem to try to cover the poverty of the music by trying to be flashy and transgressive with the visuals. 'Transgressivism' as a movement in the arts is a single joke with a single punch line. It might startle the first time it is encountered, but any repetition is grating rather than shocking. At this point it isn't even shocking the first time, because it has become so normal to have so-called artists insisting on trying to shock you. Here is the other article, which has to do with the 100th anniversary of the Loeb Classical library.
This year marks the hundredth anniversary of the Loeb Classical Library, one of the most remarkable publishing projects in modern history. Yet as with everything book-related in the year 2011, the Loeb centenary carries with it a touch of wistfulness, and an uncertainty about the future. For the Loeb classics are the monument of a book culture that now seems on the wane -- a culture that prized the making and owning of physical books, not just for the pleasure of turning the pages, but from a sense that the book was the natural, predestined vessel of every expression of human thought....

Over the years, the Loeb as physical object has become instantly recognizable to bibliophiles: uniform, small-format hardcovers, with green covers for the Greek titles and red for the Latin. So familiar and covetable are the Loebs that Harvard University Press recently marked the 100th anniversary by inviting readers to send in photographs of their collections. What makes such images tantalizing is their promise of completeness. There are now 518 volumes in the Loeb Classical Library -- just enough to make the idea of owning and reading them all seem an attainable challenge. The earliest authors in the Loeb catalog, Homer and Hesiod, wrote in the 7th century BCE; the latest, the Anglo-Saxon monk Bede, wrote in the 7th century CE. Here, then, is 1,400 years of human culture, all the texts that survive from one of the greatest civilizations human beings have ever built -- and it can all fit in a bookcase or two.

I own several of these facing-page editions, which are wonderful for those who still wish to learn Greek or Latin. (Greek, alas, is quite beyond me -- I can only recognize certain words, so that I can distinguish which concept is being translated as "knowledge" or "spirit" or "soul," for example.) If you can pick them up cheaply, which is not so hard at a college bookstore that sells used books, it is usually worth doing. So we have these amazing treasures. How do we teach people to be interested in them? Does it matter that they are not?

The Debates

Rep. Bachmann's standing in the polls has eroded sharply since Gov. Perry entered the race. She is trying to position herself against Gov. Perry chiefly on two fronts, and she is right about one of them and wrong about the other. She is wrong to try to undercut him with seniors by talking up Social Security.
"Bernie Madoff deals with Ponzi schemes, not the grandparents of America," says a Bachmann adviser. "Clearly she feels differently about the value of Social Security than Gov. Perry does. She believes Social Security needs to be saved, that it's an important safety net for Americans who have paid into it all their lives."
The chief difference between a Ponzi scheme and Social Security is that Ponzi couldn't force you to pay into it. The government is doing in the open what Ponzi had to do in secret, because they have the power to do it.

What is absolutely true, both for Social Security and Ponzi schemes, is that someone is going to get left holding the bag. We always hear that it should not be seniors, but really, it probably should be. The young are poorer than the old, for one thing. For another, it is the old who have sat by and let Congress get away with spending up the Social Security "trust fund" for a generation. The parents of the Baby Boomers were not fools, and neither were the Boomers themselves. Everyone knew what was happening, and they let Congress do it anyway.

It's a fine thing to tell a 20-something or a 30-something that they shall have to pay massive taxes their whole lives to support the retiring Baby Boomers and their parents, knowing they shall receive nothing when (if!) they are able to retire. It's even finer to tell them that when it is those same Baby Boomers and their parents who controlled the political system during the period of time when sound financial planning should have been made. Morally, the old are the ones most responsible for the current mess, and if anyone is to bear the weight of it, it should be them and not the young.

Social Security should be replaced with a system of poverty relief for those elderly who really are poor. We could afford to pay even more generous benefits for those who really cannot otherwise survive, if we gave up the idea of paying everyone something simply because they happen to be alive (and older than 65). While this would mean belt-tightening for middle-class retirees, and those soon to retire, it would be better than enslaving the young, reducing their lifetime earnings substantially in exchange for no possibility of any real support in their own age.

On this point, then, Gov. Perry is quite right, and Rep. Bachmann wrong.

She is right here:

The toughest attack on Rick Perry came not from Mitt Romney on Social Security, but from Michele Bachmann on his executive order requiring girls to be inoculated against the HPV virus. Bachmann got specific in charging Perry with "crony capitalism" because his former chief of staff was a lobbyist for the pharmaceutical company that made the vaccine. Perry manfully explained that parents could opt out of the immunizations, but Bachmann's charge packed an emotional and intellectual punch.
It is not just the "crony capitalism" piece that is right, although that is a strong point against Gov. Perry, and also Mr. Romney, the other frontrunner -- unless Rep. Bachmann pulls off an upset and wins the nomination, we shall have some flavor of crony-ist in the White House in 2013 (as President Obama is certainly one also).

She is also right, though, to defend the primacy of the family as a social unit. Another point that John Locke was wrong about is his assertion that we are naturally individuals. This is certainly not true: even on his chosen examples, it is clear that the family and not the individual is the unit that pre-exists the state. Recognizing the biological family's natural authority -- and the duty we owe both to our parents and our children -- would be of great benefit to our nation. A nation that believed in the fundamental role of the family would be less dependent on programs like Social Security, for one thing: for another, we would not be prone to the error of thinking of marriage as a kind of business partnership between the two married persons, which gives rise to easy divorce and other ills. We will be a healthier people when we return to recognizing it as a generational kinship bond that creates duties both to the previous generation and the one that is, hopefully, to follow from the union.


Apparently Rep. Bachmann made some follow-up comments today that are factually wrong. The belief that vaccines cause autism and other forms of mental handicaps is a common one, but my understanding from having looked into the issue is that the accusations are not supported. It will be important to see how she handles the correction.


The comments from the old post were good; I'm sorry they seem to have been lost. Joe raised a point about the importance of vaccinations in cases of epidemics which I agree with entirely. I think it is important for the family's natural authority to be a recognized force against which we balance the power of the state, just as the States were meant under the original Constitutional understanding to have independent power to balance the Federal government, and just as the legislature and the executive check and balance each other. Like the writ of habeas corpus, which cannot be set aside except in certain defined emergencies, the authority of the family should be a foundational feature of normal life. Setting it aside should be done only in cases where an exceptional interest requires it, as invasion might justify setting aside the writ of habeas corpus. The prevention of epidemics is surely on that scale.

Read side by side -

Read Side by Side -

In Michael Totten's latest essay, a photo of a senior Muslim Brotherhood member, with the characteristic bruised forehead. (Apparently this is a status symbol - you bash your head on the floor at prayer to prove how devout you are. Yeah, I know, big phylacteries and all that.)

In City Journal, an article on boxing that just went public, with a suggestion that one reason it fell off so much was public awareness of brain injuries from repeated head trauma. (A problem it shares even with soccer.)

Sins of Education

Dad29 sends an essay by Russell Kirk on the failings of our system of higher education as he encountered it during WWII. Let's run through his chief complaints and see how things stack up today.
There are four sins of public education: equalitarianism, technicalism, progressivism, and egotism. ...We have long been tending to reduce our educational problem to the lowest common denominator. In our anxiety to make equal those whom God created unequal, we have been as industrious, although not as successful, as was Colonel Colt. ...It does no harm for a teacher to lecture in a tone somewhat lofty for his average pupil; the dull student gains something, the average student is stirred to curiosity, and the intelligent student is pleased. This soldier never learned anything from men who came down to his level; admiration of knowledge, followed by emulation, is more effective. We talk of education for leadership; but actually we educate for mediocrity.
On the first count, things may be somewhat better at state colleges and universities than they are in the private schools. The four-year graduation rate at Harvard is 87%. At the University of Georgia, it is 54%, and at Georgia Tech it is 33%. I suppose Harvard might claim that its more selective nature means that it obtains better students, but in fact Harvard has an elaborate legacy program to permit admittance to the underqualified (especially the children of major donors). The better state schools are willing to see you fail, which means they aren't talking down to you. You'd better keep up.
...Our second curse, the popular acclaim of “practical” knowledge, of technical skills, the training of young people to minister to our comforts, is harmful not so much per se as it is incidentally; it occupies precious hours that once were given to literature, languages, and the story of the past... For manual and domestic acquirements, apprenticeship and practical experience still are the schools of greatest worth.
We are quite guilty on this point. If you look at the top degree fields in the three universities mentioned above, they are all technical skills or "ministering to our comforts," with the sole exception of Harvard's history program. Do we really need so many psychology majors? Is there really a benefit to an education degree, or a business administration degree? I've known many people with education degrees who would have been better served with a liberal arts degree in the field they were going to be teaching.
...The doctrines of the “progressive” movement in education are interestingly varied; but the assumption at the foundation of the progressivist system is that there is an easy way to learning.... Who heeds Aristotle and the Greek view of education: namely, that its object is to make man the master of his soul? John Dewey and the lesser gods that sport about him, composing the pantheon of the progressivists, ask, why exercise compulsion upon the school child? There is a very simple way to avoid compulsion: if the child doesn't like the multiplication table, let him scribble with crayons. The line of least resistance is the road to education, it is held; in consequence, the alphabet is flouted as much as possible, resulting in a splendid disregard of orthography; history and politics are metamorphosed into community civics; if a child finds Pilgrim's Progress a bit hard to read at first, give him something simpler. The notion that a student must learn by doing (act A Midsummer’s Night's Dream and not read Hamlet; play with numbered blocks, not stoop to old-fashioned tables of calculation)' is carried to such an extreme that even Bertrand Russell is alarmed...
This is very good advice, and a point on which we are quite guilty. It is possible to find teachers and a program that will carry you in the right direction, but you have to know to look for it. Most students will not know.
That egotism which is the fourth curse of our schools lies in the' unjustifiable conceit of a great many teachers. They call themselves liberal, and yet they shut their ears and eyes to all opinion but that which comes from “modern” and “progressive” sources; they prate of freedom, and yet make a closed corporation of their profession....
I haven't encountered this aspect myself, though I hear it often. It is true that almost every professor I have had has been a man or a woman of the left; it is certainly true that the numbers appear to prove that the academy is strongly leftist across the board. Nevertheless, I have not felt that any of them were close-minded, nor that I would be punished for holding different views. Perhaps I have been fortunate, but I must speak kindly of these men and women, who have done me much good.

I hope I have done them some good as well, by challenging their basic assumptions about reality -- assumptions which very much need challenging, on just the points Kirk raises. In fact it is probably time to re-examine the whole concept of the Enlightenment and the modern era, because many of our fundamental assumptions inherited from that period are simply wrong. It is not true, as John Locke taught us to believe, that equality is a pre-political, natural feature of the human condition: if equality exists, it exists only after the state is formed, within the space won by those who defend the walls. It exists only because people choose to believe in it and fight for it: those extraordinary people, who could have made themselves masters of that space, and instead used their power to make the weak their equals.

I do agree with another of Kirk's sentiments:

...If there be sacred cows in modern education, they are named psychology and sociology. It has become almost blasphemy to assail them. But any soldier who has been a year or two in barracks knows how little information psychology, that muddle of physiology and metaphysics, can give him concerning his fellow man or himself; and the man who has met the Japanese can laugh, if he lives, at the glib phrases of sociology, that jumble of history, economics, and sentiment.
It is distressing to realize that we are graduating so many people with degrees in just these worthless fields. Psychology is apparently the top field for UGA, and Sociology one of Harvard's top five. Still, the wheels of justice grind fine in their time. These things may not pass in a generation or two, but they will pass.


On 9/11, after a while, I turned off the televisions and went to an island in a river to write the poem I posted below.  This year, I rode to a wilderness.

The faithful steed on "Moonshiner 28," near where moonshiners fought a three-day gun battle with Federal revenuers trying to stop the whiskey trade.

The wilderness in question is the Joyce Kilmer Wilderness.  Alfred Joyce Kilmer was an American warrior-poet.  You may not recognize his name, but you know one of his poems.

He was killed in action in 1918, as part of the American Expeditionary Force in Europe.  At the time, he was a volunteer scout under Wild Bill Donovan.  The VFW pushed Congress into naming this wilderness after him, and it is a true wilderness:  among the last true old growth forest in the Appalachian mountains.  Some of the trees are many hundreds of years old.  Most of them are fantastically big, the sort of trees you dream of when you read stories.  It is a fitting monument to a good man.  

Near the wilderness lives the Dragon.  It has killed many men and women since the year 2000, although not so many as Iraq or Afghanistan.  But I've been to Iraq, too.

Atop the Dragon's Tail.

Atop the Dragon's Tail.  The power lines come from the TVA's nearby dams, which use the artificial mountain lakes to generate a great deal of hydroelectric power.

I took up riding motorcycles just about a year ago.  I wanted to ride 20,000 miles in my first year, and ride the Dragon, which is among the most dangerous roads in America.  I won't quite make 20,000 miles -- I'm over 15,000, but I'm just not going to make the last few thousand.  I did get to slay the Dragon, though, riding from the wilderness into Tennessee and back.

110 Octane "Dragon Fuel."  The speed limit on the Dragon is never greater than 30 miles per hour; even for those of us who care little for speed limits, there are certain physical limitations.

Breakfast near the Dragon.

In addition to the Dragon on 129, and Moonshiner 28, there is the Cherohala Skyway -- a much gentler road, but a beautiful.  It links the Cherokee National Forest with the Nantahala.  The latter is a Cherokee word that means "land of the noonday sun."  In the valleys of this land, the sun appears only for a few hours a day.

A monument to two men who died of exposure a mile high near the skyway, in the early period of settlement.  Jugs of moonshine and winter nights were the deciding factors.  

I've spent a great deal of this time in the wilderness in thought, but I don't want to talk about the thoughts yet.  I just want to share a portion of the beauty of the place with you.  My only hope, this week, was to do that most ordinary thing that any Malorian knight might do:  ride into a wilderness, and seek adventure.

Ten Years Gone

I wrote this poem ten years ago today; for seven years, I have reposted it here on this date. A lot has changed since then. In coming days, perhaps we should talk about it; but for today, here is the poem.

Enid & Geraint

Once strong, from solid
Camelot he came
Glory with him, Geraint,
Whose sword tamed the wild.
Fabled the fortune he won,
Fame, and a wife.
The beasts he battled
With horn and lance;
Stood farms where fens lay.
When bandits returned
To old beast-holds
Geraint gave them the same.

And then long peace,
Purchased by the manful blade.
Light delights filled it,
Tournaments softened, tempered
By ladies; in peace lingers
the dream of safety.

They dreamed together. Darkness
Gathered on the old wood,
Wild things troubled the edges,
Then crept closer.
The whispers of weakness
Are echoed with evil.

At last even Enid
Whose eyes are as dusk
Looked on her Lord
And weighed him wanting.
Her gaze gored him:
He dressed in red-rust mail.

And put her on palfrey
To ride before or beside
And they went to the wilds,
Which were no longer
So far. Ill-used,
His sword hung beside.

By the long wood, where
Once he laid pastures,
The knight halted, horsed,
Gazing on the grim trees.
He opened his helm
Beholding a bandit realm.

Enid cried at the charge
Of a criminal clad in mail!
The Lord turned his horse,
Set his untended shield:
There lacked time, there
Lacked thought for more.

Villanous lance licked the
Ancient shield. It split,
Broke, that badge of the knight!
The spearhead searched
Old, rust-red mail.
Geraint awoke.

Master and black mount
Rediscovered their rich love,
And armor, though old
Though red with thick rust,
Broke the felon blade.
The spear to-brast, shattered.

And now Enid sees
In Geraint's cold eyes
What shivers her to the spine.
And now his hand
Draws the ill-used sword:
Ill-used, but well-forged.

And the shock from the spear-break
Rang from bandit-towers
Rattled the wood, and the world!
Men dwelt there in wonder.
Who had heard that tone?
They did not remember that sound.

His best spear broken
On old, rusted mail,
The felon sought his forest.
Enid's dusk eyes sense
The strength of old steel:
Geraint grips his reins.

And he winds his old horn,
And he spurs his proud horse,
And the wood to his wrath trembles.
And every bird
From the wild forest flies,
But the Ravens.