Tagged: Personal

The Modern Well-Rounded Man

Consider:

1. Increasing division of labour and specialization as a coping mechanism with the complexity of the economic / social system.

1.1 Please everyone refer to James Burke’s Connections. You don’t need to watch this to get the point intellectually, but it is a wonderful way to get it viscerally.

2. Romantic/humanist ideal of University education / universal man / well-rounded man.

2.1 Embedded in current education system – “every person should know at least x, y, z”.

2.2 Embedded in social norms and values – we worship individuals with great accomplishments in very specific fields and attribute them equal levels of skill in others / become disappointed when they turn out not to be

There is a tension between 1 and 2. Understanding this was an important step in growing up (insert cynical witticism) for me.

If we are alike, you were born without the luck of having a single passion; you have a few, or you have none. In the absence of this single driver to determine your path, you go with the conventional wisdom and diversify – some weighted average. You try to be good at math but also at languages and the humanities; you engage in sports or physical activity; you become acquainted with the “classics” in whatever.

This is very good and much fun – you will be on your way towards becoming a well-rounded individual. But it will not make you Andrew Wiles nor Richard Feynman. Arguably,  you won’t become David Foster Wallace or Tobias Wolff or Marina Abramovic or any of the gold medalists of our hyper-diversified economy either. You will be on your way to becoming a productive, interesting and interested member of society – a man/woman of this time, amusing at dinner party conversations and generally “in the know”.

Which is great. These are both very good outcomes, but they are very different from each other. This is a choice which you must make early on, your answer to which will be amplified by path dependency and distorted by “luck”. But exogenous factors should not dictate your preferences – only your actions. This seems obvious until you remember that we are emotionally attached to certain exogenous factors such as intelligence.

So of course, you could be a genius and therefore not have to choose between 1 or 2. You could nurture this belief despite ever-mounting evidence to the contrary – essentially by disqualifying any objective measures of intelligence and/or staying away from the big ponds and bigger fish. Beyond being a waste of time, this attitude just distracts you from the essential question of what you think is a good life for you.

So, a piece of advice to myself and others who fit the mold:

Choose specialization or versatility consciously, and proceed accordingly.

Discard the fantasy of not having to choose – if you do turn out to be exceptional, it will be a nice surprise.

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On Tony Judt

Tony Judt has passed away.

I did not know him, and I’ve known of him for only a little while – since the first of his autobiographical essays for the New York Review of Books. And yet for the last few days my mind has been returning to him and I’ve re-read most of what is available. I’m embarrassed to admit to a sense of loss, one to which I am by no means entitled.

It is, of course, not so much for the man but for his prose that I am mourning; the words smashed out of marble into a likeness of life better than life itself. Melancholy without self-pity, humility avoiding demureness – Judt seemed desperate to convey all that we had lost while being aware of the triteness of his position. For what is more common than an old man comparing (unfavorably)  the youth of his memories to the youth of his world?

As he saw it, we have lost the ability to discuss ideals seriously; we have lost our loftiest dreams to the 20th century and the men who used every one of them to justify horror. I am reminded of David Foster Wallace, who instead attributed this loss to our generation’s aesthetic dissatisfaction with straightforward moral principles, leading to their intellectualization.

Both stories are the same: we threw away the narrative of good and evil because it felt grossly inadequate to describe our reality. How could this new generation continue to use blunt terms like good, evil and justice when they have proven to be so vulnerable to hijacking? In an age when unjustified invasion is blanketed in the promise of enduring freedom, how can we begin to make sense of what these words mean?

Instead of trying, we have attempted to carry on the conversation without ever referring to what the conversation is about. When we discuss ethics we are unable to discuss specific cases lest we pass colonialist judgment over other cultures. What remains is but the stale abstraction of human rights. In our transition from philosophy to science we have taken the descriptive and discarded the normative. Public policy, as Judt remarks, is discussed solely in terms of efficiency but not in the broader, vital context of which society it is that we want to live in. Today, we live with the ghost of fascist rhetoric always nearby, and it weighs heavily on us as we pour out bland intellectualized jargon.

When he criticizes Israel for using holocaust-shame to get away with questionable tactics, when he berates identity studies, when he chastises public intellectuals for their complicity to amoral behavior, Judt is not only arguing against a particular position in a debate: he is fighting a position which would quiet all debate. If he eulogizes morality, equality and justice it is not because he believes we have lost these instinctive ideals, but because we have become terrified of talking about them – because we have lost the words.

What I retrieve from Professor Judt, beyond the rapture of his essays and his stoic grapple with ALS, is this duty to revive the moral conversation. He is a reminder that fascists disguise themselves not only in 18th century ideals but also in the guilt of past crimes- we must beware them both. If we are not all endowed with Tony Judt’s gifts, we regardless share his task of recovering the meaning of these words, and, with them, his goal of discarding the partisan for the communal.

Minutiae

Una anecdota de mi última clase de Matemáticas de este Miércoles.

 

Normalmente no voy a clase de Matemáticas, porque la clase se trata principalmente de ver al profesor S. leer directamente las filminas, que de por sí están llenas de errores de ortografía y notación. El tipo aparentemente es un excelente econometrista pero no mucho más. Además de ello, el material es suficientemente denso cómo para ser muy difícil de digerir oralmente, especialmente cuando se transmite en un solo tono durante dos horas seguidas.

 

Sin embargo, esta vez fui porque se trataba de la última clase. Creo que muchos nos sentíamos igual, porque me dijeron que fue la primera clase llena en mucho tiempo. De cualquier manera, todos siguieron sus patrones comunes. Algunos trataban de escuchar y tomar notas, cayendo poco a poco en un estupor conforme la voz del profesor iba matando a la tarde a cucharadas de aceite. Otros, como yo, abrieron sus computadoras y se pusieron a hacer otras cosas.

 

Al final del tema, el profesor S. quiso dar un pequeño discurso de cierre, y a pesar de su generalmente pésima exposición dijo algunas cosas relevantes. Nos dijo que era claro para él y para los demás profesores que la mayoría del grupo no estaba en sus mejores ánimos, que muchos se veían deprimidos, probablemente por sus resultados mediocres, obtenidos con mucho trabajo. “Si están aquí es porque fueron excepcionales en su carrera, y naturalmente están acostumbrados a ser los mejores entre los demás. Sin embargo, obviamente al llegar aquí la concentración es muy diferente, y la distancia entre habilidades se vuelve mucho más pequeña. Son inteligentes – dense cuenta de esto.”

 

Estas tres observaciones causaron que todo el mundo pusiera atención, inclusive algunas risas nerviosas. S. prosiguió: “Traten de acordarse de por qué vinieron aquí. No vinieron a competir por calificaciones, a menos de que hayan mentido en su ensayo de aplicación. Leí muchos de ellos, y sé que todos vinieron aquí por el contenido y el material. Así que piensen en eso que les interesa, y trabajen para eso – para su tesis al final del año y para aprender de las cosas que querían aprender. No se preocupen por los resultados, porque a fin de cuentas no vinieron para eso. Quizás así no se verán tan infelices”.

 

Hubo un silencio. Todos hablamos de esto, pero la mayoría de nosotros no habíamos hablado con algún profesor al respecto. A pesar de la opinión tibia sobre este profesor en particular, había muchas caras agradecidas – evidencia de la autoridad moral que tienen los profesores en general para nosotros. Faros a través de la niebla, papás, dioses… algo por el estilo. Ese silencio fue lo más cercano a una catársis que nos iba a dar esa clase, y pronto se murió cuando alguien hizo alguna pregunta técnica del examen.

 

Creo que nos hizo bien.