Culture: May 2003 Archives

David Russ, my fraternity brother and fellow MIT alum, and who is, in fact, a rocket scientist, sends me a link to an insightful Weekly Standard column by Joel Engel, which points out the near-worship of intelligence among leftist intellectual circles. Character is not only considered irrelevant, but intelligence becomes a substitute for character:

In fact, the "right" kind of intelligence--call it Upper West Side smarts--is in some ways more tyrannical than the old Upper East Side, world-at-their-feet arrogance bred in "the best" prep schools three generations ago. While the Andover kids were at least taught manners and noblesse oblige, today's aspiring intelligentsia (especially in the bigger cities) too often learn that bright makes right. To wit: A jeweler I know brags that his 9-year-old son, away at overnight camp, mouths off to the counselors--"because he's so much smarter than they are." A friend can't decide whether he'd prefer his brilliant but tortured son to be happy or accomplished. A colleague's sister watches with pride and nods approvingly as her 7-year-old daughter calls me stupid for disagreeing with her memorized contention that the president has more important things to worry about--"like the economy, duh"--than Iraq.

It will not be surprising that the favorite recent presidents of this bunch are Clinton and Carter, and their least favorites, Reagan and Bush. Engel compares supposed intelligence with success in foreign policy and concludes that raw intelligence isn't as useful as common sense:

The best and the brightest, as we learned from JFK's advisers, offer little protection against absolute foolishness--and may, perhaps, be more susceptible to it, given the anecdotal evidence suggesting that brilliance and common sense are inversely correlated. It's no wonder Castro hoped Bush wouldn't be "as stupid as he seems." For 40 years the dictator has been surrounded and visited by brilliant people who swear that he's brilliant and benevolent--and if Bush were indeed a dimwit, he might see right through Castro and conclude that all those people willing to brave sharks, drowning, dehydration, and firing squads to escape from Cuba actually recognize something that the dictator's brilliant admirers do not.

From painful personal experience, I can tell you that intelligence is no guarantee of success, and as much as I admire the signs of brilliance I see in my children, I know that they will only be able to make the most of that brilliance if they have learned godliness and humility, hard work and practical common sense.

Another fraternity brother, Peter Sullivan, once told me this story on himself, which illustrates that an MIT education is no guarantee of common sense: One night he was restless and couldn't sleep. He was feeling nervous (about a test, if I recall correctly), so to mellow out he drank a "Mello Yello", which had the highest caffeine content of all the beverages offered by the Coca-Cola Company. He still couldn't fall asleep, and since he was unable to doze, he reasoned that he should take a "No-Doz", which made him about as calm and cool as Barney Fife confronted with an actual crimefighting situation.

Now let me tell a story on myself. My college social life was frustrating. As a skinny, spotty, charisma-deficient nerd-boy, I was certainly among my own kind at MIT, but I therefore failed to make much of an impression on the girls I went out with. There was one thing I had going for me -- I was smart enough to go to MIT and study computer science -- but that didn't seem to help me at all with these women. Many years later, I realized that they weren't impressed by my academic credentials because they were MIT students, too. I had foolishly restricted my dating universe to the set of women among whom my one competitive advantage was neutralized. There were plenty of attractive female students in the Boston area who would see an MIT engineer with good earning potential as a great catch (lack of charisma notwithstanding), but instead of looking up and seeing alternate routes through the dating maze, I kept my head down and continued bashing into the dead end I had found.

Anyway, I finally tumbled to this conclusion, oh, about three months ago. And I might have remained clueless and single until then, but providentially, toward the end of my college years, when I was not quite as skinny and spotty as before, God brought across my path a lovely young University of Arkansas student, who condescended to be my first girlfriend and, ultimately, to be my wife.

So don't confuse intelligence with common sense, people skills, or the countless other factors that separate success from failure.

A web search for photos of old-time playground equipment (of the sort they have at Riverside Park in Independence, Kansas) turned up this little essay by Bill Van Dyk about a decision to tear down every playground in the Toronto school district despite the fact that the old equipment was safe:

What happened was this. An inspector from Ottawa had created a report that laid out some guidelines for new playground equipment, with the laudable goal of ensuring that they would be as safe as possible. The new guidelines were better than the old guidelines, of course. Some clever people have found ways to build playground equipment that is safer than ever before.

The Toronto School Board, having received their new guidelines, hired an inspector from a private service to check all of their playground equipment to see if they conformed with the new guidelines. They did not, of course. The old playground equipment is, well, old.

As it turns out, the old playground equipment was not very bad at all. Out of the hundreds of thousands of children who had played on them, no one had ever been killed, nor, apparently, were there many serious injuries. In fact, more children are injured on the paved areas of the playground and the yard than on the playground equipment.

Still, no cost is too high when it comes to children's safety. Except for the cost of common sense and rationality. The Toronto School Board ordered 172 sets of old playground equipment removed, on the off chance that someone, some day, might get hurt really bad.

In the midst of all the talk about racial preferences in college admissions, it's not often mentioned that many colleges which receive federal funds have racially-exclusive programs, a clear violation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Roger Clegg, in NRO, reports that his organization has notified 26 universities that their racially exclusive programs violate the law and could be the subject of a complaint to the Office of Civil Rights. In 15 cases, the university responded to the notice by dropping the racial requirements without hesitation. When my alma mater was challenged, they hesitated a bit:

MIT's story is a bit more complicated. We first wrote to its senior counsel on February 20, 2001, after receiving a complaint from a parent whose child was ineligible for its summer program, which excluded whites and Asians. MIT said it was confident that its program was consistent with federal law, and so last year we filed a complaint with OCR, which launched an investigation.

That investigation is still ongoing, but MIT has concluded that we were right after all, and that a racially exclusive program is indeed indefensible. "Our best advice was that for racially exclusive programs, our chances of winning were essentially zero," said Robert P. Redwine, MIT's dean of undergraduate education. The university's senior counsel added that its decision was based on "an analysis of what our peers were doing around the country, and what conclusion other institutions have reached. . . ." So MIT has decided to end the racial exclusivity of its summer programs, too.

MIT's program is called Project Interphase. It was designed to help "underrepresented [i.e., not Jewish or Asian] minority students" make the transition to the pace of an MIT education:

Over a quarter of a century old, the goal of the program is to enhance the academic preparation of the participants who are expected to enter MIT as undergraduates in the Fall. The program emphasizes accelerated adjustment to the rigorous MIT environment and has a dual focus: academic excellence, and the development of social and institutional support networks and skills.

The new policy still has a focus on "underrepresented minorities" but acknowledges other circumstances for which such a program might be useful:

To that end, individuals of any race or national origin may apply to these programs. MIT will take many factors into account when selecting students for these programs, such as academic qualifications, and whether the individual is the first generation in his or her family to be headed for college, comes from a high school that does not send a high percentage of students to four-year colleges, comes from a background that presents challenges for success at an elite urban institution such as MIT, or comes from a racial or ethnic minority group that is underrepresented in educational programs and careers in science and engineering.

While I understand the good intentions behind Project Interphase, it was my observation that it may have interfered with the success of minority students. The program unfairly stigmatized minority students as uniformly and uniquely unprepared by their high school education for the intensity of the MIT experience, often described as like "taking a drink from a firehose". Furthermore, by bringing racially-exclusive groups together before freshman orientation, the program encouraged the development of race-based social networks, which preempted the formation of cross-racial friendships. Our fraternity offered several bids every year to African-American freshmen based, like all our bids, on our assessment of a freshman's compatibility with the current membership. Only rarely were those bids accepted, with many of these young men choosing to join their Interphase classmates in certain dorm floors of New House, dubbed "Chocolate City" by the residents.

A Google search on "Chocolate City" turns up this interesting page by a white Ohio State alum who links to a number of similar living arrangements at school around the country. The author says that his college experience would have been diminished had his African-American roommate chosen to live in self-segregated housing.

In NRO's Corner, Stanley Kurtz reveals that members of the National Association of Scholars -- professors who support academic freedom and oppose political correctness -- now have a virtual catecomb, in the form of a weblog, for their mutual encouragement. Meanwhile NAS members receive printed communications in a plain brown wrapper:

When I was a grad student, I was afraid to join the NAS for fear that if my membership were discovered, it would destroy my career. So I subscribed to Academic Questions, the NAS journal, but without formally joining. Eventually, I joined the NAS, but made sure it mailings came to me at home, rather than at school. Turns out the local NAS understood all this, and sent its information in envelopes with no organizational identification on the outside.

With a tip of the cap to Andrew Stuttaford of National Review Online for pointing this out, here is a fascinating review by Christopher Hitchens of a new book on the origins of the King James Version of the Bible by Adam Nicholson. The review includes a link to the book's first chapter.

Although I find translations like the NIV or the more word-for-word literal NASB better suited for study and comprehension, the King James Version is a cornerstone of the modern English language, and its turns of phrase inhabit our everyday speech. That's why I'm happy that the scripture memorization my son does at his school is done in the KJV. That is the only appropriate choice for a school with a classical emphasis.

UPDATE: The Washington Post has posted this review, by Jonathan Yardley.

Separation of church and state notwithstanding, you can't separate your theology (or lack thereof) from your politics. What you believe about the existence and nature of God and the nature of mankind will shape your ideas about government and society. If we build public policy on a solid foundation of ideas that reflect the world as it really is, we will build a peaceful, happy and prosperous society. If we build policy on a complete misunderstanding of human nature, we will produce chaos and despair. That's why I like to ask candidates -- particularly judicial candidates who won't be drawn out on specific issues -- "Are people basically good, or basically evil?" If they get this question wrong, they'll make all sorts of bad decisions, and I'll end up in my house behind seven different kinds of locks, hoping the marauding hordes will leave me alone.

This is what got me thinking about this: In today's "Bleat", James Lileks tells us about a couple of Anthony Burgess's dystopian sci-fi novels (The Wanting Seed, A Clockwork Orange), and how they reflect Burgess's fascination with "the dynamic between the teachings of St. Augustine and the Pelagian heresy." Augustine said that it was not possible for man not to sin -- because of the fall, humans cannot acheive perfection, apart from God's grace. Pelagius said, yes, it was possible for man to be perfect, and Augustinians shouldn't be so lazy about attaining personal holiness. Of course, theology has implications for public policy: " this argument, Burgess saw the two poles of political philosophy at work in the West, and beyond. Augustinian philosophy, which saw man as flawed and sinful and basically hosed when it came to perfectibility in this mortal plain, was the conservative view. Pelagius was liberalism: our nature is not only perfectible, we can perfect ourselves here and now."

Which view you hold comes down to a matter of religious conviction but it leads you to very different conclusions about the role of government, how to educate, how to deal with crime. Some theological propositions aren't testable, but with regard to human nature, we have thousands of years of recorded history to draw from. We can see how real humans have responded to various methods of governing and quickly determine which set of presuppositions, which model, is closest to reality.

I am reminded of a Monty Python bit: The Amazing Mystico and Janet, an illusionist (and his assistant) who builds high-rise apartments by hypnosis -- they stay up as long as the tenants believe in them. In real life of course, apartment buildings stay up only if they are constructed in accordance with the immutable laws of physics, exploiting those laws to produce the desired result. In the same way, a society built in accordance with the immutable laws of human nature will stand firm, while no amount of sincere believing will sustain a society built upon an illusion.

Read the whole article. Lileks' Bleat is always worth reading, and the rest of his site is hilarious, thought-provoking, and amazing, too.

Hard vs. Soft America


Michael Barone of U.S. News and World Report has an original insight into a significant contrast between what he calls "Soft America" and "Hard America" -- Hard America being "the part of American life subject to competition and accountability". Most modern American kids aren't exposed to Hard America until age 18, and that, Barone says, is why America produces incompetent 18 year olds and competent 30 year olds.

My wife and I are doing our part to produce competent 18 year olds. Our children, even at their young ages, deal with accountability and are held responsible for their actions at home. There's a place for softness -- being understanding and forbearing as a child matures -- while remaining firm and insisting that the child take responsibility for the consequences of his behavior. We willingly pay a premium so that our son can have an education grounded in the same philosophy.

It's a brilliant insight by Michael Barone (not an unusual occurrence) and worth a read. (Thanks to Instapundit for the link.)

Father of the Laugh Track


The Wall Street Journal's Michael Judge offers an appreciation of the life-work of Charlie Douglass, inventor of the "Laff-Box":

"Sometimes called the Laugh Organ, the first Laff Box stood just over two feet tall and was operated something like an organ. Different buttons could be pressed to combine different types of laughter--belly laughs or chuckles, hoots or guffaws--and the operator could even choose the sex and age (man, women or child) of the laughter. Foot pedals were used to control the timing and duration of the laughter."

Judge says the Laff Box serves a useful social purpose and won't be going away anytime soon.

On the way down US 75 to Jenks for my son's T-ball game, I directed his attention up Lookout Mountain to the KTUL Channel 8 studios. "That's a TV station up there." Trying to find a way to explain the significance, I asked my wife, "Does he watch anything on Channel 8?" "We see bits of the news, sometimes."

Thirty-five years ago, the Channel 8 studios on Lookout Mountain meant something to Tulsa's six-year-olds. That's where you went to be on "Mr Zing and Tuffy" or "Uncle Zeb's Cartoon Camp". It's where you wrote to get an autographed Gusty cartoon by weatherman Don Woods. Lookout Mountain meant something to local musicians too, who appeared on John Chick's morning show, and to the many fans of Mazeppa's Uncanny Film Festival. It wasn't just that these programs were entertaining or informative, it was that you or someone you knew might be on the air. Stations like KTUL were woven tightly into local culture.

That connection is gone -- my son watches Animal Planet, PBS, Disney, and HGTV. He's probably seen more TV reporters in person, at the various political events we attend, than he has on TV.

If you want to relive a time when locally-owned TV (and radio) stations reflected and contributed to local popular culture, check out Mike Ransom's wonderful Tulsa TV Memories website.

About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Culture category from May 2003.

Culture: June 2003 is the next archive.

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