Saturday, August 19, 2006

Out of Step

I suppose this is true of most fields or enterprises, but certainly with learning technology there seems to be an imperative to keep up with the profession and stay in tune with current developments. This need is somewhat at odds with my own persona --- I have a preference to tread on paths that were familiar in the past but have long since lost their interest for the masses. They have moved on to other things. I would rather be away from the crowd than part of it and this way I can view things in my own way, without having to conform with popular opinion.

It is much harder to maintain one’s one view and hold it strongly when in negotiation with others who hold their own views with spirit, especially when there is some discord between the two positions. Near the end of the Frye Leadership Institute, which I attended in June 2003, they provided us with a list of recommended readings for afterwards. One of them was The Contrarian’s Guide To Leadership, by Steven Sample and from that I learned an important principle of leadership --- don’t make decisions before you have to; gather information and listen to the opinions of others until a decision is necessary. This truly is contrarian for me, because until reading this book I would have said that I’m a good “Bayesian” and hold some subjective probability on the truth of a proposition, updating that as new information arrives. The main difference between the two, especially from the point of view of leadership, is that by vocalizing my own view I may inadvertently cause those people whom I am supposedly leading to shut up or to conform. Then I lose the ability to learn from them. I know that in situations where I’m in the position of subordinate, I feel a strong need to conform. The Sample book has encouraged me to change my approach.

For much of my adult life I’ve been neither leader nor follower and especially when it has come to reading about things outside of economics I’ve come to these things late and therefore may very well hold unorthodox thoughts about the books I describe below. They are in some sense quite different books, but they share in common helping me to come to grips with “outer” issues. And by this I mean issues that one reads about or hears about and that may not have an obvious tie to one’s own “inner” issues. These books helped to create such a tie or gave me a different perspective on which to think about these issues.

Let me begin with The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass. I read this either later in my graduate school career or early on as an assistant professor. The issue at the time for me, and I know this may seem strange 25 years later, was how to think about people who were German. If they were connected to their past and I was connected to mine, was it really right to adopt the “I’m OK and you’re OK” point of view I had with pretty much everyone else? My grandparents on my mother’s side were killed at Auschwitz and while that obviously had a huge influence on my mother’s life, I had no direct connection with them. Likewise the German young people who were approximately my age had no direct connection with the Nazis, although their own ties to their parents must have been heavily influenced by their parents’ experience during Nazi Germany.

I know that at the urging of a classmate at Northwestern I watched several “German angst” movies, such as Wim Wenders’ The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick. These movies were depressing to view and conveyed a sense of alienation, I suppose a necessary penance on the way toward normalcy. But they didn’t really help me in resolving my own dilemma about how to think of German people.

The Tin Drum did. Grass reflected directly on the horror of the Nazi experience without being literal but with a clear sense to having borne witness to it all. Yet he was equally clearly a wonderful author and story teller. I don’t know that I explicitly thought this after reading the book, but I’m sure it helped me feel that these people deserve a chance, especially since my sense was that I was not his primary audience – that was other Germans who had lived through the same history.

Now let me switch gears. During the Reagan years the TV shows (Larry King, Crossfire, etc.) featured a variety of voices on cultural/educational issues. William Bennett and Nat Hentoff are two of the more prominent names I remember. I was uncomfortable with what both of them had to say. Hentoff argued that free speech, even when it clearly was hate speech, should never be suppressed. (During my time at Northwestern an Engineering professor, Arthur Butz, published his book denying the Holocaust and the Nazis had their march on Skokie. In my own internal cost-benefit calculation on upholding the Bill of Rights versus promoting pernicious nonsense, these outcomes constitute defeats, not victories.) Bennett, was known to champion the reading of certain works (the authors had to be dead white males, who had penned “classics”) and to scorn the reading of other books, notably those that were au courant, emblematically represented through the works of Toni Morrison. (During that time, the great New York Times columnist and humorist, Russell Baker, had a piece on this debate to the effect that Johnny didn’t read, period, so all this culture war stuff was beyond the point. Exactly.)

Perhaps 9 or 10 years later, well into the Clinton years and after I had begun to embrace Learning Technology, I read The Closing of the American Mind by Allan Bloom. The book had served during the Reagan and Bush senior years to make “une cause juste” for the Bennett position. Severed from those trappings, I didn’t find the argument so unreasonable and indeed that the reading of classic works should be a part of one’s liberal education seems a sensible thing to me. Somehow, and I’m not quite sure of the path to this, but possibly it was that I was a Book of the Month Club member, soon after reading Bloom I read a different book, one much less well known but I think worth reading called The Opening of the American Mind by Lawrence Levine, which while billed as a rebuttal to Bloom’s book (and the title was obviously chosen for this purpose) though it served a quite different purpose for me.

Nowadays “diversity” is a core value on campus and I suspect on most campuses around the country. Levine’s book gives the key arguments for why that should be the case, how we can’t understand each other unless we know the stories of ordinary men and women from all walks and stations and that a history that focuses only on the heroes, the so-called makers of history, will inevitably be incomplete and inadequate as a consequence. I encourage the reading of Levine’s book. And I suspect it will have more impact on the reader if Bloom’s book is read first.

Up till now in this post I’ve talked mostly about what I would call “heavy reading” --- the issues are somber and the treatment of those is high minded. Now let me turn to lighter fare and talk about a book I read after seeing the movie first. This was Contact by Carl Sagan, realistic (in the sense of conforming with the known laws of physics) science fiction about extraterrestrial intelligence and intergalactic travel . I loved that movie and it spurred me to read not just Sagan’s book but also several books about “string theory” intended for a lay audience.

I bring Contact up here because a critical strand of the story is about the interplay between scientific thinking and religion and I think Sagan’s tone and the outcome of the story play it just right. The book and the movie both make a point of emphasizing “Occam’s Razor,” the principle that other things equal the simpler explanation is preferred. Applying that, scientists should be atheists, since natural phenomena can be explained without appealing to intervention by God. But miracles defy such explanations and when the miracle has only a few witnesses (in the book there were a few who traveled through the chain of wormholes to a distant star and back again, in the movie there was only one, the character played by Jodie Foster) and those witnesses are scientists how will anyone else come to believe them unless those believers have faith? And if those scientists want to be believed, don’t they have to put their trust in faith as well? The irony is delicious and it makes for a very good story.


LisaTheLibrarian said...

Always interesting to read what books have influenced people. In fact, to the degree I have any book collecting inclinations, I collect books about people's experiences with books or with reading books. The Tin Drum was the common text for my freshman college honors english class. Reading what you wrote, I think I didn't get as much out of it as I should have. Putting it on my "read again" list....

Lanny Arvan said...

Did you see the movie? It's an interesting picture, though if memory serves it doesn't cover the full story of the book, and it is certainly less of a time commitment than the book.

Lanny Arvan said...

I guess I'm out of step in more than one way. This review of Grass' new book, an autobiography of his early years, sure makes it seem as if Grass was pulling his punches, even when writing the Tin Drum. Perhaps that was a necessity at the time of writing, but from the here and now it makes the work less compelling.