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Giving Critical Thinking Some Critical Thought

Wednesday, November 29th, 2017

[Mark Safranski / “zen“]

This is a useful, quick read…

Why Do Smart People Do Foolish Things?: Intelligence is not the same as critical thinking and the difference matters

….The advantages of being intelligent are undeniable. Intelligent people are more likely to get better grades and go farther in school. They are more likely to be successful at work. And they are less likely to get into trouble (e.g., commit crimes) as adolescents. Given all the advantages of intelligence, though, you may be surprised to learn that it does not predict other life outcomes, such as well-being. You might imagine that doing well in school or at work might lead to greater life satisfaction, but several large-scale studies have failed to find evidence that IQ impacts life satisfaction or longevity. University of Waterloo psychologist Igor Grossmann and his colleagues argue that most intelligence tests fail to capture real-world decision-making and our ability to interact well with others. This is, in other words, perhaps why “smart” people, do “dumb” things.

The ability to think critically, on the other hand, has been associated with wellness and longevity. Though often confused with intelligence, critical thinking is not intelligence. Critical thinking is a collection of cognitive skills that allow us to think rationally in a goal-orientated fashion, and a disposition to use those skills when appropriate. Critical thinkers are amiable skeptics. They are flexible thinkers who require evidence to support their beliefs and recognize fallacious attempts to persuade them. Critical thinking means overcoming all sorts of cognitive biases (e.g., hindsight bias, confirmation bias).

Read the rest here.

Most people will say (without critical thought) that critical thinking is a good thing but fail to define what they mean by that term. Usually right before they complain that schools and higher ed aren’t imparting the desired but undefined critical thinking skills to their students. While this stereotypical complaint is accurate as far as a generalization, it underestimates how much imparting such skills in students is generally opposed in practice by Left and Right. Argumentative peons who can think for themselves? Really, when in history has this ever been popular? Seldom with rulers and not often with the ruled; sheep do not enjoy the bark of the sheepdog even when the dog is defending the flock from the wolf.

There are idiotic factions on the Right, often socially conservative home schooler types who openly complain about “critical thinking” in the public schools as s kind of liberal conspiracy to replace content knowledge. It isn’t. Though the reverse idea, to minimize the idea of a canon of core content knowledge,  has appeared in ed fads, including aspects of the (deservedly) controversial Common Core Standards which was pushed by a cabal of billionaires, establishment GOP hacks, the Pearson corporation and the Obama administration in order to nationalize the school curriculum and vastly increase standardized testing. It is this recurring pattern of of political-academic-big business charlatanism in American education that gives this perennial right wing complaint traction. The public ed community in the past 40 years has pushed a lot of dubious programs and theories on students and the taxpayers. And still are; often in service of bureaucratic or political agendas like corporate ed reform.

The political  Left is no better and in some ways, worse. If ever there was a cultish, anti-critical thinking, movement for brain dead indoctrination, it’s the social justice/identity politics movement. Rarely have more intelligent people been made to say stupidly nonsensical things on a college campus than in the past two years. It’s play-acting Red Guardism  and vicious moral one-upmanship but as an ideology, SJW identity politics works socially as a self-referential, closed system to inoculate the believer from any need to consider contrary ideas and justify, if need be, violently suppressing them in others.

Critical thinking involves a capacity to use logical reasoning, the skills at the top of Bloom’s taxonomy, probabilistic reasoning and several other important intellectual skills in pursuit of rational, skeptical inquiry. It’s powerful.  So powerful that it has been an engine of mankind’s progress whenever it has been given enough freedom to flourish. The flip side is that critical thinking in essence and outcome is also ultimately subversive of all ideologies and regimes. Without exception – and there is the rub. There’s a reason in other words, that Athens put Socrates to death. And we are no better. We do it daily on Twitter, albeit metaphorically because millions of Americans today can neither think critically nor stand to see others do it if it calls their cherished sacred cows to account.

We can teach critical thinking skills along with content. It’s not hard, assuming you can think critically yourself. We don’t systemically do this because we create ed systems designed to prevent it (public ed) or hire an army of people opposed to critical thinking on principle (university diversity bureaucracy). I’ll end my rant on this thought: immediately improving American education across the board at all levels could be done without costing one additional cent, but it means getting a lot of self-serving, politicized, rubbish out of the way.

REVIEW: Why Socrates Died by Waterfield

Sunday, May 21st, 2017

[ Mark Safranski / “zen“]

Image result for why socrates died

Why Socrates Died: Dispelling the Myths by Robin Waterfield

2400 years after his trial and execution at the hands of the restored Democracy, Socrates continues to exert a fascination over the Western mind. He is a seminal figure in the development of philosophy and was part of the cognitive revolution in classical Greece that saw a shift from archaic Homeric values to humanistic, rational and proto-scientific values. The death of Socrates, condemned for thought crimes, was the great contradiction of Athenian self-conception of Athens as  “the school of Hellas” and his execution remained an indictment leveled by the enemies of democracy ever since. While the importance of Socrates is universally acknowledged, the exact circumstances and motives for his death remain obscure; ironically, a philosopher who so deeply valued “truth” had prosecutors and apologists equally determined to conceal or distort it.

British scholar and translator Robin Waterfield has attempted, as did radical journalist I.F. Stone a generation earlier, to unearth the truth behind the myths about Socrates. Unlike Stone, Waterfield’s investigation, Why Socrates Died , rests on an extensive career translating and writing about the classics, including the major primary and secondary sources used for his book. This provides a firmer base for the inevitable speculation from limited evidence that is frequently required in historical reasoning about antiquity. Waterfield is also far less influenced by contemporary political and cultural conflicts than was Stone, whose turbulent career as an investigative journalist was intertwined with Cold War controversies and his activities on behalf of the intelligence services of the Soviet Union. Waterfield also understands far better the machinery of the Athenian state and the nature of Greek polytheistic religious life, which Stone erroneously believed had become thoroughly secularized by the time of the trial of Socrates.

Waterfield notes that while it is normal that most of the records of historical events during antiquity are fragmentary or have vanished, we two purported records for Socrates’ defense speech at his trial, one of the prosecution and numerous apologia. Socrates trial was obviously no ordinary law case for impiety, being still recalled by Athenians a half-century later. Nor did the disciples of Socrates who most ardently took up his cause, Plato and Xenophon, wish the case to be forgotten but rather endeavored to protect their master’s reputation for all posterity. Waterfield writes:

….Both Plato and Xenophon wanted to give their readers the impression that a high-minded philosopher was convicted by the stupidity of the mob, but this was an attempt to distract attention from the real reasons Socrates was killed.

The real reason posited by Waterfield was that Socrates  was the teacher of Alcibiades and Critias and thus bore some responsibility for the grave misfortunes suffered by Athens during the war and the crimes of the Thirty Tyrants afterwards. Moreover, as Waterfield argues, Socrates was not so much the victim of a political show trial in which Socrates deliberately provoked the democratic faction to kill him, as I.F. Stone argued but was a religious sacrifice or scapegoat for the transgressions of his students against democracy so that a fragile Athenian society could heal its wounds.

Much of the book is devoted to the career of the mercurial and highly charismatic Alcibiades, who entered politics young and as a disciple of Socrates. According to Wakefield, A scion of the greatest of Athenian houses, Alcibiades in his person was emblematic of all of the virtues and vices of the old Athenian aristocracy that had once ruled Athens from the grand council of the Aeropagus. Of the rising generation of young and clever men of good breeding who aimed to play a role in the politics of the radical democracy, Alcibiades had the greatest promise. Highly intelligent, wealthy, handsome and with a magnetic charm, Alcibiades had the natural arête and metis to romance the mob and bend it to his will. It was this that Waterfield argues attracted the attention of Socrates, who saw in Alcibiades and other young men of promising talent he took on as students the future of Athens.

Unfortunately, with Alcibiades, his numerous gifts could never be separated from his equally stupendous flaws – sexual libertinism, flamboyant profligacy, megalomaniacal ambition and reckless hubris – that were frequently his undoing. A psychological chameleon and demagogue, Waterfield argues that the Athenians, as much as they repeatedly forgave and embraced Alcibiades and his schemes, ultimately feared him as an aspiring tyrant. This feeling crystallized into blame for Socrates in the public mind when other students of his who lacked the charms of Alcibiades, notably Critias, sought revolution and oligarchy. Critias’ bloodthirsty pro-Spartan regime as well as the elite’s prior attempt at oligarchy are explained but not with the same space and attention to detail devoted to Alcibiades. One point that Waterfield takes further than most is arguing that Critias aspirations for a morally reformed and less populated Athens are very much in line with the teachings of Socrates. That far from an aberration for whom Socrates bears little responsibility, Critias represented the philosopher’s hopes for Athens and the Athenian democrats who had suffered at the hands of the Thirty Tyrants wanted someone held accountable. That someone was Socrates, whose teachings as it were, would imperil democracy again were he left at liberty.

Waterfield’s handling of the trial itself is less satisfying and includes a lengthy foray into fictive speculation of material prejudicial to Socrates that his notable apologists, Plato and Xenophon, have carefully omitted from their elegies to their beloved master and his trial. The parallels between Athenian religious ceremony and the results of Socrates trial – a trial for impiety held in defiance of the general amnesty that had been decreed for actions under previous regimes – are present. The Greeks did not as a rule go in for human sacrifices in the classical era (though it wasn’t quite as unknown as is commonly believed) but the symmetry is present if more metaphorical than perhaps explicitly religious. It is difficult as a modern to game out exactly where matters of state end and religion begin when the religion is pagan and intertwined in the mind of Athenians with the fate of the state. A debate more for classical scholars than the average layman.

What is difficult to dispute is the centrality of Socrates life in the evolution of Western philosophy and the contradiction he presents for admirers of self-government and free speech and thought as the core of a liberal society. Socrates elenchus is radically subversive; his Homeric tenets on rulership were arch-reactionary even by the standards of his day and Socrates devotion to his beliefs could not be dented even when they required the supreme sacrifice.

What would an American Socrates look and sound like today? How would “the herd” react to his immovable defiance of popular ideologies? Judging by the barometer of social media and the lynch mob mentalities and angry censoriousness that prevail in elite quarters of American life, I’d have to say: poorly. I see no evidence that Americans living in the bastion of civil liberty would prove more tolerant of dissent than did the Athenian democrats who put Socrates to death.

Waterfield has written a lively and informative explanation of a philosopher whose execution casts a long shadow even after two thousand years.  Recommended.

 

Recommended Reading—Summer 2016

Monday, July 11th, 2016

[by J. Scott Shipman]

Storm of Creativity2017

wright-brothers-biographyserendipities

Paradisejssundertow

white horsewashington

 

The Storm of Creativity, by Kyna Leski

2017 War With Russia, by General Sir Richard Shirreff

The Wright Brothers, by David McCullough

Serendipities, Language and Lunacy, by Umberto Eco

Paradise, Dante Alighieri, translated by Mark Musa

Undertow, by Stanton S. Coerr

The White Horse Cometh, by Rich Parks

Washington The Indispensable Man, by John Thomas Flexner

This list starts the first week of May, so perhaps the title should be Spring/Summer. Most of these books are quick reads and all are recommended.

I picked up Ms. Leski’s book at an MIT bookshop on a business trip in early May and read on the train ride home. Books on creativity are ubiquitous, but Ms. Leski takes an interesting approach by describing the creative process using the metaphor of a storm. Several ZP readers will find of interest.

2017 was recommended by a friend. The author was the Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe and the book focuses on a Europe/NATO response to a Russian invasion of the Baltics. Written in a Tom Clancy-like style, the plot is fast-paced even though the good general provides sometimes provides detailed insights into the inner workings of NATA and the North Atlantic Council (this is one of the values of the book—bureaucracy writ-large).

David McCullough’s Wright Brothers delivers an approachable and human accounting of the first men of powered flight. Some reviews on Amazon complain McCullough lifts and uses too many quotes to tell the story. At times the quotes were distracting, but not enough to prevent the enjoyment of the story of two brothers who changed the world. This book was a gift otherwise I probably would not have read.

Serendipities is a short book, but was a long read for me. Eco explains how language and the pursuit of the perfect language has confounded thinkers since time immemorial. He refers to Marco Polo’s unicorn (also used in his Kant and the Platypus which is excellent) explaining how language is often twisted to meet a preconceived notion or idea. The first couple of chapters were quite good, chapters three and four did not hold my interest or were over my head. The closing chapter was good enough to convince me I’ll need to read this little book again. (My Eco anti-library has been growing of late.)

Eco’s book led me to reread Musa’s excellent translation of Paradise. My son gave me the deluxe edition with parallel Italian and English, plus commentary. Eco referenced Canto 26 and 27, and I enjoyed the break so much I read the whole thing!

Undertow is my good friend Stan Coerr’s second book of poetry.  His first book Rubicon was a moving collection of poetry of men at war. Undertow deals more with the heart and is quite good, too. You won’t be disappointed.

White Horse is also a book by an old friend, Rich Parks (we’ve known each other since the mid-80’s). White Horse is self-published and in places it shows, but the overall story is quite good for a first book (I’ve already told him his book would make an excellent screenplay.). The plot is quick and entertaining even if a bit unbelievable, but the story is fiction. Rich is following up with a sequel in August in 2016 and I’ll be reading it, too.

Mr. Flexner’s Washington was a gift, too. In this quick biography Washington is made approachable and human. And when I say “quick,” I mean quick…Trenton and Princeton took one chapter compared to David Hackett Fischer’s Washington’s Crossing which took up a standalone book. If someone were looking for a first Washington biography, this would be a good place to start.

This isn’t the conclusion of my summer reading, but a pretty good start.What are  you reading this summer?

Review: The Rule of the Clan

Wednesday, April 20th, 2016

[by Mark Safranski / “zen“]

Rule of the Clan by Mark Weiner

I often review good books. Sometimes I review great ones. The Rule of the Clan: What an Ancient Form of Social Organization Reveals about the Future of Individual Freedom  by Mark S. Weiner gets the highest compliment of all: it is an academic book that is clearly and engagingly written so as to be broadly useful.

Weiner is Professor of Law and Sidney I. Reitman Scholar at Rutgers University whose research interests gravitate to societal evolution of constitutional orders and legal anthropology. Weiner has put his talents to use in examining the constitutional nature of a global phenomena that has plagued IR scholars, COIN theorists, diplomats, counterterrorism experts, unconventional warfare officers, strategists, politicians and judges. The problem they wrestle with goes by many names that capture some aspect of its nature – black globalization, failed states, rogue states, 4GW, hybrid war, non-state actors, criminal insurgency, terrorism and many other terms. What Weiner does in The Rule of the Clan is lay out a historical hypothesis of tension between the models of Societies of Contract – that is Western, liberal democratic, states based upon the rule of law – and the ancient Societies of Status based upon kinship networks from which the modern world emerged and now in places has begun to regress.

Weiner deftly weaves the practical problems of intervention in Libya or counterterrorism against al Qaida with political philosophy, intellectual and legal history, anthropology, sociology and economics. In smooth prose, Weiner illustrates the commonalities and endurance of the values of clan and kinship network lineage systems in societies as diverse as Iceland, Saudi Arabia, Kenya, India and the Scottish highlands, even as the modern state arose around them. The problem of personal security and the dynamic of the feud/vendetta as a social regulator of conduct is examined along with the political difficulties of shifting from systems of socially sanctioned collective vengeance to individual rights based justice systems. Weiner implores liberals (broadly, Westerners) not to underestimate (and ultimately undermine) the degree of delicacy and strategic patience required for non-western states transitioning between Societies of Status to Societies of Contract. The relationship between the state and individualism is complicated because it is inherently paradoxical, argues Weiner: only a state with strong, if limited, powers creates the security and legal structure for individualism and contract to flourish free of the threat of organized private violence and the tyranny of collectivistic identities.

Weiner’s argument is elegant, well supported and concise (258 pages inc. endnotes and index) and he bends over backwards in The Rule of the Clan to stress the universal nature of clannism in the evolution of human societies, however distant that memory may be for a Frenchman, American or Norwegian. If the mores of clan life are still very real and present for a Palestinian supporter (or enemy) of HAMAS in Gaza, they were once equally real to Saxons, Scots and Franks. This posture can also take the rough edges off the crueler aspects of, say, life for a widow and her children in a Pushtun village by glossing over the negative cultural behaviors that Westerners find antagonizing and so difficult to ignore on humanitarian grounds. This is not to argue that Weiner is wrong, I think he is largely correct, but this approach minimizes the friction involved in the domestic politics of foreign policy-making in Western societies which contain elite constituencies for the spread of liberal values by the force of arms.

Strongest recommendation.

The Strategist: Brent Scowcroft and the Call of National Security

Friday, March 4th, 2016

[by Mark Safranski / “zen“]

The Strategist: Brent Scowcroft and the Call of National Security by Bartholomew Sparrow

In writing The Strategist, Bartholomew Sparrow has demonstrated that his talents as a biographer match his skill as a scholar. Cautious and careful, in telling the life and national security career of the highly regarded Brent Scowcroft, Sparrow never slips into hagiography, or gives Scowcroft a free pass in situations where it would be easy to do so. In retaining his critical eye, Sparrow has consequently permitted Scowcroft’s selfless character and frequently wise judgement to shine on their own merits in the historical record. The result is that The Strategist is a biography of remarkable power, like a great river, there are deep currents of insight below the gently moving surface.

At a sprawling 716 pages, Sparrow had room to investigate Brent Scowcroft’s family heritage in Mormon Utah, his journey at West Point from student to professor, his intellectual and professional mentors (Herman Beukema, William T.R. Fox, George Lincoln, Richard Yudkin, Andrew Goodpaster) and Scowcroft’s unfailing devotion to his wife Jackie, who became an invalid in the years when Scowcroft’s career embraced its largest burdens. It is this context that helps explain the strong ethical core that Scowcroft demonstrated time and again as a military officer, strategist and statesman as he handled brilliant but brittle personalities at the center of national security and foreign policy.

What Sparrow makes clear, time and again, was that it was Scowcroft’s unusually high emotional intelligence coupled with an amazing work ethic that provided Scowcroft with the high opportunities that allowed him to bring his talents as a strategist and manager of national security to bear. Quite simply, Scowcroft connected with people and his relentlessly consistent integrity in dealing with everyone – literally from interns to journalists to Presidents of the United States – was such that his word was regarded as being as good as gold. His equanimity too was almost as legendary as his ethics. ” I never heard Scowcroft get angry” is a frequent refrain of former colleagues. His detractors are few: Dick Cheney, who as Vice-President had a bitter break with Scowcroft over the Iraq War, had nothing but praise to say of his former friend’s integrity and judgement.

Not only did Scowcroft forge an unusually close strategic partnership with two presidents (Ford and Bush I) but he managed to win the respect and trust of so paranoid and aloof a figure as Richard Nixon (it is far less clear that Scowcroft trusted Nixon). Scowcroft’s secret was that inside a Beltway where politics and personalities trended Machiavellian, he operated in a zone of trust. Even the Clinton and Obama administrations sought Scowcroft’s counsel because they were assured of his absolute discretion and impartial judgement.

Asked to compare himself with his former boss, Henry Kissinger, Scowcroft demonstrated that he knew his strengths and his limitations. Sparrow writes:

“….Scowcroft had his own well-developed sense of military strategy and world history. He was also brilliant at questioning and evaluating the merits of his new ideas and policy options as well as a superb bureaucratic operator who knew how to put concepts into practice. But unlike Kissinger, Scowcroft said he was better at reacting to and evaluating ideas than he was dreaming them up; that was why he liked to hire people smarter than himself. ‘I don’t have a quick, innovative mind’ he claimed. ‘I don’t automatically think of good new ideas. What I do better is pick out good ideas from bad ideas.”

Was Scowcroft a good strategist?

The first problem in answering this question, at least from reading Sparrow, is that Scowcroft’s rarely equaled skill as a manager of the NSC decision-making process tends to greatly overshadow and blur his record as a strategist.  Scowcroft’s National Security Council, which worked well under Gerald Ford when the greatest of Washington prima donnas, Henry Kissinger, reigned as Secretary of State, hummed like a machine under George H. W. Bush. One would have to go back to Eisenhower to see such a comparable example of smooth national security decision making. The key was the absolute trust Scowcroft established, as Sparrow records:

“Bush, Baker, Scowcroft and other senior administration officials were able to establish relationships based on trust. ‘One of the reasons why the system worked was that Baker and Cheney totally trusted Brent to keep them informed and to fairly represent their views to the president,’ Gates said. ‘He was the only national security adviser in my view that was ever so trusted by the two other principals’ – and Gates had served under six US presidents at the time he wrote the above, before his time as defense secretary under George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

Scowcroft’s management of the NSC process also worked well because of his creation of other interagency groups to expedite decision making. One of his key innovations (retained by subsequent presidential administrations) was the formation of the Principals Committee which included the Vice-President, the secretary of state, the secretary of defense, the director of central intelligence, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the White House Chief of Staff and the national security adviser – all meeting without the president.”

Scowcroft achieved the holy grail of natsec policy – “whole-of-government” planning and execution. Part of the reason was that Brent Scowcroft was extraordinarily close to the elder President Bush, far closer than in the dysfunctional yet highly successful partnership between Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger. That accounts for some of it, but Condi Rice was just as close to George W. Bush as Scowcroft had been to Bush’s father yet her tenure as national security adviser is given low marks, not least for being completely unable to rein in Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld or Vice-President Dick Cheney who was virtually the prime minister of the administration in its early years. The difference may have been that Scowcroft could not only speak with the President’s unquestioned authority, he knew better when to do so than Rice and consequently, seldom needed to do it at all.

The second problem in answering “was Scowcroft a good strategist” is that he clearly was not and never aspired to be a grand strategist in the manner of Richard Nixon, George Kennan or Otto von Bismarck.  Scowcroft never approached national security by attempting to reshape the geopolitical calculus despite the regrettable tagline of “new world order”. Instead, Scowcroft’s strategic philosophy was to manage risks as they emerged by peacefully integrating a collapsing rival state system piecemeal into the existing international community status quo at the lowest possible cost of disruption. Maximizing geopolitical opportunities or strategic gains was not his primary yardstick.

This is why as Sparrow, relates, that Scowcroft and the senior President Bush strongly discouraged “triumphalism” in American rhetoric about the Cold War while trying to work with Mikhail Gorbachev to manage the Soviet collapse; and why the break up of Yugoslavia was viewed with such distaste (Scowcroft had served in the embassy in Belgrade under Kennan). Conversely, this is also why  Scowcroft was so eager to use American military force in Iraq, to defend and reinforce post-Cold War international legal norms from Iraqi aggression, but not to march to Baghdad and overthrow Saddam’s dictatorial regime. Brent Scowcroft deserved the credit for both his early insight that force would be required to remove Iraq from Kuwait and the wisdom of the Bush administration to wield overwhelming force with restraint and diplomatic finesse.  When the second Bush administration – an administration filled with his former colleagues – opted to march on Baghdad, it would have been a simple matter for Scowcroft to remain silent, but instead he offered counsel. When his advice was rebuffed, Scowcroft did the harder thing and made his case against the Iraq War public even though it cost him friendships and access to the President of the United States. A rare choice in Washington.

Scowcroft is indeed a strategist by any reasonable measure and something greater, a statesman for whom the country and its national interest always came first.

Strongly Recommended.


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