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I remember reading Ben Carson’s Gifted Hands back in fourth grade. The follow-up to that was going to see the play at a local theater. Though lost on me at the time, I realize now that there was a reason why we were encouraged, as inner-city youth, to get into Ben Carson. He was someone the adults wanted us to look up to. He had “pulled himself up by his boot straps,” with the assistance of his illiterate mother and food stamps, of course. I was at the age where I was eager to collect role models, and I found most of them in books, so I kept Carson’s story in mind for encouragement, re-reading it on my own once or twice.

There were some parallels between Carson’s life and my own that might have drawn me to him. My mother was fairly strict, and even after she went to prison, my brother and I lived with a Seventh-day Adventist family who also had very conservative guidelines on how everyone should live. I spent most of my life in predominantly white schools, so I was no stranger to the toll racism can take on a student. The dwindling number of black classmates as the years progressed was also an indication. Unlike Carson, violence had never been an issue for me, and though my grades were not always the best, I was a bookworm and was praised heavily for it. Since most people around me didn’t read, it didn’t matter that I was mostly reading fluffy romance novels. Just being a kid that was willing to pick up a book meant something. Stories like Carson’s were comforting to me because I knew people measured my worth by how smart they believed me to be. Being smart meant that you were going places, though no one ever specified where those places were.

More… “The American Dream”

Kesia Alexandra is a freelance creative writer from Washington, DC. She can be found on Twitter @kesialexandra and Instagram @kesia_alexandra.
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Graduation week has special meaning to me as a university professor: It signals the end of my time with my students and the beginning of their new professional careers. As we end the academic year, I am remembering graduation week last summer. I spent part of my sabbatical from my university in Philadelphia at Sun Yat-sen University in the Guangdong province of southern China. The Sun Yat-sen University campus looks a lot like my own university campus during graduation time, with students clad in black graduation gowns milling around campus, many carrying bouquets of flowers and followed by misty-eyed parents and grandparents who keep stopping to snap pictures and take videos of their darling offspring. (And who can blame them for being so proud? I wept openly with pride throughout both of my children’s preschool graduations, and all they had to do to graduate was show up to class and not bite the other children.)

More… “Exchanging Notes”

Denise Agosto is a Professor of Information Science at the College of Computing & Informatics at Drexel University in Philadelphia, where she teaches, researches, writes, and dreams of returning to China one day.
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In my most recent essay for The Smart Set, “What is Education for?” I argued that the tendency to equate education with mere instruction neglects the more fundamental purposes of education: initiation into a cultural or civilizational tradition, indoctrination into a public philosophy — in the United States, democratic republican liberalism — and inculcation of the manners which enable young people to grow into good citizens, good neighbors, and good colleagues.

In the liberal magazine Democracy Journal, Kevin Mattson was quick to respond. Mattson is a professor of history at Ohio University, a fellow at the liberal Center for American Progress, and a member of the editorial Board of Dissent. As my politics are those of a Rooseveltian social democratic liberal, and presumably similar to those of Mattson, to judge from his affiliations and his publications, I was curious to learn what his objections were. It turns out the divide between us has nothing to do with politics, in the conventional sense, but rather with our differing views of the purpose of education.

More… “What is Education for? Part II”

Michael Lind is a contributing writer of The Smart Set, a fellow at New America in Washington, D.C., and author of Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States.
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What is the purpose of education? It is usually assumed that the major purpose of education is instruction: the transmission of information and the imparting of particular skills like the classic three R’s: ‘readin’, ‘ritin’, and ‘rithmetic’.

But instruction is the least important part of education. Most information is accessible from books and the media. Basic literacy and numeracy are important, but many if not most skills used by adults in daily life are picked up on the job. The main objective of education in every enduring society is to transmit authoritative cultural, political, and ethical traditions from one generation to the next. We can speak of the major purposes of education as the Four I’s: Initiation, Indoctrination, Inculcation, and Instruction.

More… “What is Education for?”

Michael Lind is a contributing writer of The Smart Set, a fellow at New America in Washington, D.C., and author of Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States.
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The day my 11th graders began The Catcher in the Rye, Duane* said, “Man, this book is so boring. And what’s he got to complain about? Why we gotta read about this whiny rich white dude?”

“What’s he getting kicked out of school for, anyway?” Gary asked.

“He’s failing most of his classes,” I said.

“You can’t get kicked out for failing!” More… “Failing to Learn”

Anne P. Beatty is a high school teacher in Greensboro, North Carolina. Her nonfiction has appeared in The American Scholar, North American Review, Vela, and elsewhere.
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Michael Lind’s call for the abolition of the social sciences and his vision of a future university in which the humanities and sciences are housed in separate facilities that turn their backs on each other is a sad indictment of the state of American education. That such a proposition could even be entertained demonstrates the failures of our discipline-based silos, our relentless competition for resources, and our ossified structures of knowledge. But this cleaving of science from humanities is based on a deep misunderstanding not only of the social sciences, but also of the sciences as a whole and their relation to the arts and humanities.
More… “Abolish the Walls”

Mimi Sheller, Ph.D., is Professor of Sociology and founding Director of the Center for Mobilities Research and Policy at Drexel University. She is author and co-editor of nine books, including most recently Aluminum Dreams: The Making of Light Modernity; The Routledge Handbook of Mobilities; and Mobility and Locative Media. She is currently President of the International Association for the History of Transport, Traffic and Mobility, founding co-editor of the journal Mobilities, and Associate Editor of Transfers: Interdisciplinary Journal of Mobility Studies. E-mail her at mimi.sheller@drexel.edu. Dan Schimmel, BFA (1989) University of California, Berkeley, MA (1996) and MFA (1997) University of Iowa, is an artist based in Philadelphia and born in Missouri. He has exhibited work at the Delaware Art Museum, Susquehanna Art Museum, Delaware Center for Contemporary Art, Allentown Art Museum, and State Museum of Pennsylvania. For ten years he was Director and Curator of Exhibitions at the Esther Klein Gallery in Philadelphia, and from 2010-2013 was the founding Director of Breadboard, an art, science and technology program at the University City Science Center. Email him at dan.schimmel@gmail.com.
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From Mad Men and White Collar to Dirty Jobs and Grey’s Anatomy, TV may tell us a lot about how we view our work — and, moreover, how we should. For some, it’s just a job, but for others, it’s a life calling. Maybe we can learn more about our professions by staying on the couch than we can by joining the workforce. (Aeon)

Ad blockers are gaining popularity, maybe because they can save mobile users more than just the headaches caused by strobe-like video ads. A new report by the New York Times shows that, depending on the ratio of advertising to content, blockers can shave seconds off loading times and cents off data bills for each page. (The New York Times)

There’s a constant battle to explain why the rising price of a college education seems to raise demand, defying the usual models. There’s a term for this — a Veblen good — and it’s got mostly to do with the price of prestige. (The Baffler)

Is it time for “he” and “she” to go the way of “Miss” and “Mrs.”? Sharon Bloyd-Peshkin argues that gender, like marital status, should not be brought up in journalistic stories unless pertinent. Here’s a historical and political case for the singular “they.” (In These Times)

Looking for something to read this weekend? Sink into some science. (Seed Magazine) •

Maren Larsen is the associate editor of The Smart Set. She is a digital journalism student, college radio DJ, and outdoor enthusiast.
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In my old age, I hope to found a new university, called rather unimaginatively the New University, with funding from one or another imprudent billionaire (a prudent billionaire would turn me down). In contemporary universities and colleges there is often a division among the natural sciences, social science and humanities. In my New University, there would be only two faculties: natural sciences and the humanities. The social sciences would be abolished.

Social science was — it is best to speak in the past tense — a mistake. The dream of a comprehensive science of society, which would elucidate “laws of history” or “social laws” comparable to the physical determinants or “laws” of nature, was one of the great delusions of the 19th century. Auguste Comte formulated a Religion of Humanity based on “the positive philosophy” or Positivism. Karl Marx went to his grave convinced that his discovery of laws of history had made him the Darwin or Newton of social science.
More… “Let’s Abolish Social Science”

Michael Lind is a contributing writer of The Smart Set, a fellow at New America in Washington, D.C., and author of Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States.
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The story of my 28-year friendship with James Merrill begins in April 1967 at the University of Wisconsin. Merrill was in Madison to teach a creative writing course in poetry. I had entered Wisconsin’s Ph.D. program the previous fall as a Teaching Assistant, bringing with me a bachelor’s degree (majors in English and philosophy, minor in biology) from Hanover College in Indiana, and an MA in English from Colorado State University. These were the nether regions of academe; Wisconsin was a decisive step up for me. I had just turned 24.

In those days the English Department was quartered in Bascom Hall, a picturesque old building crowning a hill above the city of Madison. The underclass of first- and second-year teaching assistants, who were paying for graduate school by teaching freshman composition, shared a big office on the third floor. My desk formed one corner of the block of desks pushed together in the middle of the room; a tall, slender second-year man called Steve Yenser occupied a desk facing the far wall. Merrill had admitted several TAs to his poetry course, including the two of us. Until the notice went out inviting students to apply for the course, I had never heard of James Merrill or read any of his work, though he had just won the National Book Award (whatever that was) for a poetry collection, Nights and Days.

We at Wisconsin were lucky and knew it; creative writing courses given for credit were not common on the campuses of that time. And I had experienced something in college that may have intensified my eagerness to get into this one. For five weeks during the spring of my senior year, a poet called Lionel Wiggam1 had been in residence on the Hanover campus. The arrangement was informal; his job had been simply to give a reading and make himself available to student writers. From this availability an odd relationship, platonic but intense, had formed between the two of us, eventuating in a scholarship for me to the 1964 Indiana University Writers Conference, where he was on the faculty. Three years later we were still corresponding. At 50 or so Lionel had published a slim volume, The Land of Unloving, in which some poems from a precocious, decades-earlier collection had also been included. His lyric verse was deft but dated. His startling handsomeness, somewhat marred by bad teeth (slightly protruding, with gaps), had qualified him at one time to model aftershave and menswear; for years I owned a little black-and-white stand-up poster, purloined from a barber shop, on which Lionel pondered the dilemma: “Which Stephan’s dandruff remover is right for your hair?” The mysterious mutual attraction continued to fascinate and perplex me, and the mask of sophisticated posturing to frustrate me. I didn’t know how to make Lionel feel safe enough to show me what was behind the mask, yet faith in his essential goodness made me want to confirm it, reassure him, convince him to stop hiding, from me and from everyone.
More… “Strange Attractor”

Judith Moffett is the author of James Merrill: An Introduction to the Poetry. Her third collection of poems, Tarzan in Kentucky, will be published in September.
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Alime Sadikova was one of the smartest, most ambitious young women in Jizzakh, and one of the smartest, most ambitious women I had ever met. She was the first to learn English in her family — encouraging and helping her younger brother who was studying on a grant at a high school in Colorado at the time — and establishing her own successful language school in Jizzakh called En Course, where I taught. She would later receive a Fulbright scholarship to study at Texas Tech in Lubbock, but on the day after the En Course disaster, she had a quirky and tactless way of explaining my failure. She told me that I had been dumped. Again.

“Are you serious?” I said, shivering as I spoke on the public telephone in my host family’s… More…