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Harry

Dream Hoarders

by Harry on December 4, 2017

If you’re looking for a passive-aggressive Christmas gift for your upper middle class friends, whatever their politics, you could do worse than Dream Hoarders: How the American Upper Middle Class Is Leaving Everyone Else in the Dust, Why That Is a Problem, and What to Do About It. I have to admit that, despite the fact that my poverty-researcher friends have been recommending Richard Reeves to me for a long while, I read it sooner than I might have otherwise because of this Observer piece, drawn from the book, which discusses one of the arguments in my and Swift’s book Family Values. I’ll be giving it to my recalcitrant (and definitely not liberal) father-in-law, along with The Color of Law.

Reeves isn’t interested in the 1%, but in the 20%. The starting point is Obama’s aborted plan in January 2015 to abolish 529 plans. For those of you who don’t use them, 529s are tax sheltered college funds. The funds grow tax free. They are a complicated enough instrument that (almost) no one outside the top 20% uses them and, like all tax-shelters and deductions, are more valuable the higher your tax rate. Ted Cruz inserted a provision to the Senate bill which expands 529s so that rich people can pay for elite private k-12 schools with tax-exempt savings. A particularly wicked feature is that anyone – grandparents, uncles and aunts, family friends, etc – can contribute. So the more relatives with large amounts of disposable income you have, the more your college fund will grow, and the greater the cost to the taxpayer. In 2009 23% of households in the top quartile of the income distribution hold 529s, with an average balance of $32,000; just 2% of households in the bottom quartile had 529s, with an average balance of less than $1k. 529s are estimated to cost the federal government only about 5.8 billion in the next 5 years, but almost all of that will benefit families in the top quartile of the distribution (and those estimates do not account for the possibility that 529s will be useable for private k-12). And its not just that 529s effectively reduce the cost of college for affluent families but not for lower-income families: by increasing the higher education spending power of the affluent they, presumably, raise the price at the more selective end of higher education; thus rendering it less accessible to less affluent families.

Obama’s plan to abolish 529s, and replace them with a stronger and broader version of the American Opportunity Tax Credit, a credit for educational spending which is unavailable to families earning over $180k, was defeated not by Republicans, but by Democrats.
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New(ish) Crime Writers: Benjamin Black

by Harry on November 27, 2017

Benjamin Black has one thing in common with Sharon Bolton.

Black (the second of the ‘only counts as British because all Irish people who accomplish impressive things get claimed as British unless, of course, those impressive things involve some sort of successful military or political action against the British’ crime writers) is, in fact, John Banville. He seems to have shifted more or less whole hog from literary fiction to crime-writing under his pseudonym. The main series is about Quirke, a pathologist with a labyrinthine family life, and who seems to be a magnet for murder (Now I think about it I suppose pathologist is a job to avoid if you want to avoid all contact with murder). Christine Falls starts us off in mid-fifties Dublin, which is exactly the way that Henry and Maria sometimes suggest in their posts, and proceed chronologically. They are noir-ish in the extreme – it always seems to be grey and drizzling, and Quirke is depressive and not particularly likeable (his daughter is, but it is hard to see her growing toward a happy fulfilled middle-age, much as he would like that for her). They’re well-plotted, but that’s not the reason to read them – the characters and the mood, and the outlook on the world are what make them so compelling. Black actually has a wry sense of humour, but he chose the pseudonym for a reason: they are dark books. (I haven’t yet read the more recent—books).
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At the APA blog Steven Cahn says:

The term “hidden curriculum” refers to the unstated attitudes that are often communicated to students as a by-product of school life…. [At graduate school]

[One] message is that faculty members are entitled to put their own interests ahead of those of their students. Consider how departments decide graduate course offerings. The procedure is for individual professors to announce the topics of their choice; then that conglomeration becomes the curriculum. The list may be unbalanced or of little use to those preparing for their careers, but such concerns are apt to be viewed as irrelevant. The focus is not on meeting students’ needs but on satisfying faculty desires.

Similarly, in a course ostensibly devoted to a survey of a major field of philosophy, the instructor may decide to distribute chapters of the instructor’s own forthcoming book and ask students to help edit the manuscript. Whether this procedure is the best way to promote understanding of the fundamentals of the announced field is not even an issue.

I think he exaggerates a little: certainly in my department more thought than that is given than he describes to graduate course offerings. But I don’t think he exaggerates a great deal. A piece of evidence: I was struck, in my several years on my university’s curriculum committee (which vets all new course proposals and all proposed course deletions in the university—at least several hundred a year of the former, and a handful of the latter) how often the rationale for proposed undergraduate courses in the humanities and (to a lesser extent) social sciences was something like this:
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New(ish) crime writers: Sharon Bolton

by Harry on November 21, 2017

I can’t remember how I came across Sharon (SJ) Bolton, but I do know that Sacrifice sat by my bedside a long time before I read it, possibly because it looked like it could genuinely be awful. Her output falls into main two groups: a series about Lacy Flint, a completely screwed up female cop in London (mainly) and several sort-of stand-alones. The first 3 stand-alones are mostly published under the name SJ Bolton, and the blurbs of those make a big deal of her fascination with, and use of, local folklore (which is maybe what kept making me delay reading Sacrifice). Accordingly the crimes have a mystical character – part of the trick is teasing you about whether the crimes have actually been committed by real people or whether there is some element of the supernatural. They are all in rural, closed, settings, and all involve strong female protagonists, and some element of romance. Now, they are not really sequenced, but they do all take place in the same fictional world, and a few characters recur, so you should read Sacrifice and Awakening in whichever order you prefer, then Blood Harvest (which is my favourite, despite a LOT of blood). They’re all genuinely creepy, and Awakening and Blood Harvest had me scared (be warned – Blood Harvest has a couple of scenes in which people might fall from great heights – and I’m the kind of person who breaks into a cold sweat when I see Road Runner go off the edge of a cliff).

The Lacey Flint books also take place in the same fictional world, and though they are not continuous with the others, again a couple of characters from the other books pop up, so if you really want to avoid (mild) spoilers, wait till after you’ve read the others. Flint is really a terrifyingly damaged person, for reasons that emerge slowly in relation to the plots. The books all (like Bolton’s others) have a ‘strong female protagonist in jeopardy’ element: partly due to Flint’s own extraordinary own recklessness and partly due to the irresponsible behavior of her bosses. All but one are set in London, which appears as a sort-of extra character (especially in A Dark and Twisted Tide). As with Tana French, they’re complex thrillers, and as with Sophie Hannah part of the joy is the author’s defying you not to suspend your disbelief. For what it’s worth, I love the non-Flints, and my daughter loves the Flints. Start at the beginning with Now You See Me; if you start later, the first book will be ruined for you, but you’ll still want to read it in order to get a grip on Flint.

Personal Statements

by Harry on November 20, 2017

When I’m writing a letter of recommendation for an undergraduate applying for graduate school (one of the many parts of my job for which I have received no training and my skill in which has never been assessed by anyone), I pretty much always want to look at the personal statement (or, their answers to the program-specific questions which many professionally-oriented programs ask). If I don’t know the student really well, the personal statement helps me write the letter, just because it keeps them fully in my head; and if I do know the student really well it seems wrong not to offer to comment on/offer editorial advice, especially if I know (as I often do) that the student doesn’t have a parent who will be able confidently to do this. For all I know my own confidence is misplaced, but I don’t think it is – I have read thousands of personal statements over the years {mainly for nursing school, clinical psych, teacher ed, school counseling, medical school and law school and, of course, philosophy), and although I only know directly what other people (my immediate philosophy colleagues) think about the statements of students who apply to Philosophy PhD programs, I have observed the fate of those students whose statements I’ve looked at.

The main thing I want to say about personal statements is that in my experience many candidates agonize over them and spend far too much time trying to get them exactly right. In philosophy the main purpose of the personal statement is to convey that you know what you are doing, that you are genuinely interested in the program you’re applying to, and that you are not a complete flake. Some people, it is true, have genuinely interesting stories behind their desire to X, whatever it is, but most really don’t.[1] But they usually seem compelled to tell a story as compellingly as possible. Here’s a quote from a recent email (used with permission):

Hi Brighouse, I hope you had a nice weekend and that you have a good week ahead of you! I wanted to email you to ask for your help with my personal statements. I have spent a lot of time attempting to write some of them and I am really struggling. They feel very cliched to me and I am not sure how to make myself stand out as an applicant in so few words!

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Clerihew corner (sport edition)

by Harry on November 15, 2017

Clerihews explained here.

This week, we have a sporting edition. Now, there is a slight problem here: I am only interested in one sport. However, my son’s irrational obsession with American Football has at least provided me with one subject (and my son, to my surprise, approved).. And I think I may have composed the first ever clerihews about women cricketers. You, the readers, are entirely welcome to write clerihews about one of the lesser sports—indeed, I hope you will!

Football:

Ha Ha Clinton Dicks was cursed
With a name that made him burst
Out with laughter whenever it was said
So he changed his name to Fred instead.

Cricket:

Elyse Perry
Makes Australians merry
As she dashes
England’s hopes to regain the Ashes

Than Moeen Ali, the spinner
Few cricketers were ever thinner;
Beefy and Freddie in fact
Were, not infrequently, fat.

Boycott was never out
But he wouldn’t clout
A ball for six
Even when his team was in a fix. [1]

Geoffrey never scored runs too fast
In matters of style he was often outclassed
But with steely rumination
He went about accumulation

When considering Alex Blackwell
The selectors have not checked their facts well
She scores tons of runs, so in the absence of Lanning
Why the hell isn’t she Australia’s captain? [2]

[1] He actually did hit eight 6s in Tests, half of them in 1973.
[2] This one was, obviously, written before the start of the Ashes series.

Clerihew corner (politics edition).

by Harry on November 6, 2017

I introduced clerihews last week (post here) and was stunned by the response—you are great at this! Most in that thread were about philosophers, though there were a good number about other types of people. I’ll return to philosophers (one of my colleagues has been quietly supplying me with his own contributions so I’ll have to find a way to publicize them). This week’s challenge is to write clerihews about politicians—broadly conceived. Here are my efforts (including Montgomery, not strictly a politician I guess):

Edward Clerihew Bentley
did his satire gently.
Would he have kept to that precedent
with this President?

After the white van man picture Emily Thornberry
Said she was sorry, but she wasn’t very.
Now that Boris behaves like a gooseberry
Even white van man wants her as Foreign Secretary.

Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery
Eschewed entirely involvement in mummery.
Instead he devoted himself to Irish dance
Which he performed to his troops at every chance

When the loathsome Morrison asked Ernest Bevin,
After Labour’s great win,
To stand against Clement Attlee
Bevin said, “That’s just not me”.

Some people say of Julie Burchill
That she’s a distant relation of Winston Churchill
Unlikelier cousins there may not be
(Apart from Lady GaGa and Clement Attlee). [1]

[1] I wrote this one immediately after learning that not only is Angela Lansbury a red diaper baby and lifelong leftwinger, but also the granddaughter of George Lansbury (and daughter of communist Edgar), cousin to Oliver Postgate, and in some complicated way related to Malcolm Turnbull.

Clerihew corner (philosophy edition)

by Harry on October 31, 2017

I rediscovered Clerihews at my dad’s house recently, noticing and devouring his copy of The Complete Clerihews. Clerihews were invented by EC (Edward Clerihew) Bentley (author of Trent’s Last Case, one of the greatest detective novels to be written by someone who wrote only one detective novel). [1] They have a strict format: they must be about a person who is reasonably well known, 4 lines, with an AA BB rhyming scheme. They also seem to observe other unstated criteria. They are not cruel, or didactic, and the person about whom they are written must have some sort of substance. Gavin Ewart points out in his introduction to The Collected that they could be used for biting satire but Bentley never does that and he (Ewart) is unaware of them ever being used so. They are gentle. The pay-off would ideally come as something of a surprise, but not be completely irrelevant: Surrealism and whimsy are permitted, indeed encouraged. The name of the subject usually (but not always) comes at the end of the first line, challenging the author to find a good, but non-obvious, rhyme (as you’ll see in a moment he rhymes Plato with potato which is only one part of the genius of my favourite clerihew). There are no rules about rhythm except, as far as I can tell, that if you write several, you should vary the meter. (All Bentley’s clerihews seem to have been illustrated by GK Chesterton: I can’t rival that!).

Here are three of Bentley’s best:

The intrepid Ricardo
With characteristic bravado
Alluded openly to Rent
Wherever he went.

It was rather disconcerting for Hannibal
To be introduced to a cannibal
Who expressed the very highest opinion
Of cold pickled Carthaginian

And my favourite of all:

Although the dialogues of Plato
Do not actually mention the potato
They inculcate strongly that we should
Seek the Absolute Ideal Good.

The unwritten strictures rule out certain subjects. It seems morally dodgy to be whimsical about President Trump, for example (Bentley does one about Goebbels and Hitler, and it doesn’t feel right at all, especially when you learn it was written in 1939); and just difficult (though not impossible, and I don’t think dodgy) to be whimsical or surreal about Jacob Rees-Mogg (how can you be surreal about a person who declares himself, correctly, an embodiment of the surreal?). Bentley tends toward historical subjects – kings, presidents, philosophers, musicians, literary figures – with just a smattering of his contemporaries, most of whom are no longer household names, represented (Captain Wedgewood-Benn features – with luck there will always be a Benn about whom to write clerihews).

So, I’ve been trying to write some. They’re hard!

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The Book of Dust

by Harry on October 18, 2017

In late 2001 I had caught up with work enough to treat myself to leisure reading on my (at that time long) commute to and from work (Oxford to London). I can’t actually remember why I started reading it, but I was immediately gripped by His Dark Materials, and one dreary December morning was sitting on a Circle line train reading The Amber Spyglass when I noticed a young girl (12?, 13?) staring at me. I ignored her as best I could. As we pulled out of Edgware Road she pestered the man next to her (who, I quickly realised was her dad) and said something while pointing at me. Maybe she had recognized me from my recent one minute appearance on the BBC World News?[1] Then, that old familiar feeling: the train stopped between stations. I continued to read. She continued to stare. I was bemused rather than uncomfortable, but was relieved when we all got off at Euston Square and the father leaned over to me and said “She’s been admiring you ever since you got on the train because she’s never seen an adult reading her favourite book”. I grinned in acknowledgement and thought of saying “Oh yes, well, tell her I’m a professional philosopher” but thought that would sound pretentious and silly.

The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage is published tomorrow. I guess that girl is in her late twenties now. And I bet that, like me, she has ordered it to arrive the day of publication but will wait until she can read it without distraction. I wish I could get it for her, but instead I’ve ordered it for a former student around the same age whose cat is named Pantalaimon.

[1] Not a success. I had been invited to comment on the 15th announcement of the government’s ‘new’ plans for schools: I had studied the policies in great detail (several times, over the course of the several times the same plans had been announced as if they were brand new and treated by the press as if they were, indeed, brand new—I think that was the period which undermined my taste for reading newspapers), and had prepared a minute or so of good things to say about them, but had failed to listen to the news on my way to the studio, so had not heard Campbell talking about “bog-standard comprehensives”. The interviewer opened with that phrase, which I’d never heard before, so I spent the entire time trying not to giggle and have no idea what I actually said.

The British Dream

by Harry on October 4, 2017

As someone who has had nightmares every night that I can remember since the earliest part of my childhood that I can remember, I love the idea of a British Dream—which is, apparently, Mrs May’s brilliant idea for renewing her premiership (bonus in link—you can see Amber Rudd telling Johnson he has to stand to applaud, and the Rees-Mogg look-alike handing May a P45). It reminds me of Gordon Brown’s search for a new slogan/motto for Great Britain (my personal favourites were “Mustn’t grumble”; “At least we’re not France” and “We’re British, we don’t need a slogan”).

My own version of the British dream would be sitting on a slightly slimy wooden bench, eating fish and chips soaked in vinegar, on a dreary drizzly November evening, next to an oily beach in a depressed seaside town on the North Sea. But yours might be different: lets hear them!

The Center for Ethics and Education has announced an essay prize for the best submitted paper by a graduate student “that uses philosophical insight and argument to address an important issue in educational policy and/or practice”. The deadline is Feb 1 2018, and the first prize is $3000. If you can, please circulate this link widely to students who might be interested. Please don’t think this is only for students who identify as philosophers of education: we are trying to induce talented philosophers to work on issues in education and talented scholars of education to think more philosophically about their subject. The full call is as follows (pasted from the link):

The Center for Ethics and Education is pleased to announce an essay competition for graduate students. We are looking for essays that use philosophical insight and argument to address an important issue in educational policy and/or practice. The problem the essay addresses might arise in early childhood education, compulsory education, or post-secondary education, or in the way children are raised in families. The essay might, for example, concern any of the following topics:

The proper content of moral education and of the rights of parents to choose its content
The place of religion in schools
Justice and efficiency in the allocation of public funds across schools and school districts
The proper aims of schooling in a democratic society
The commercialization of schools and childhoods generally
The obligations to students with special educational needs
The rights of students to privacy, freedom of expression, or freedom of association
Ethical issues of teaching or school leadership
The rights and obligations of teachers with respect to abusive or violent children
Ethical considerations in college admissions and enrollment

We emphasize that this list is illustrative and not exhaustive.

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Sir Viv Stanshall Day

by Harry on August 24, 2017

Depending on how you count, this is the first Sir [1] Viv Stanshall Day of 2018, or the 216th Sir Viv Stanshall Day of the new Presidential era. Time to enjoy these lovely videos, and help me with a suggestion.

Now the suggestion. My football-mad 10-year-old is a not-bad singer, and needs a song for his next recital which has a 60s theme (his sister is performing Monkees songs, unsurprisingly). So… A Bonzo song that a 10-year old boy can sing?

[1] Sir? Well if Mr Trump can be President, surely Viv can be a mere knight. I conferred on behalf of the CT collective. I probably should have consulted with them, now I think of it. I am convinced that if the Queen Mother had ever met Viv he’d have been knighted properly, anyway.

Evidence of childhood ambitions?

by Harry on July 24, 2017

England beat India in an absolute thriller yesterday. Ironically, given this post, I didn’t watch is – I’m in Spain, and was, during the most exciting part of the game, sitting in Barcelona airport awaiting the arrival of my daughter.
The BBC account includes this charming tweet, from Ian Shrubsole, with pictures of his daughter, Anya (who was the hero of the hour with 6/46) aged 9, at Lords:

The tweet immediately put me in mind of another picture (which is owned by Getty, and which I can’t insert, but think I am linking to here), of a similarly aged Harold Wilson standing outside number 10. When I first saw the picture (at a similar age myself) I thought that probably every PM had a picture of him or herself outside number 10 when a child (I bet Theresa May does), because I assumed they’d all have parents who were feeding their political ambitions, but in the many years since I’ve never actually seen one. So—any similar pictures/stories of children marking their future territory? I suppose there are obvious ones—Tiger Woods, and everyone who has ever succeeded in tennis—but non-obvious ones please?[Child actors not admissible]. Or, if you saw it, tell us about the World Cup Final.

[A sort of aside. When I was 12 my dad, to the consternation of my cousins, promised me 1000 pounds if I ever played at Lords. To his horror, within 3 months my school team had won the county cup, and entered into the national competition—we were four games short of a Lords final. Fortunately, we played Radley in the next round and were massacred. I think that he promised the same to my sister, which shows how optimistic he was about the progress of women’s cricket, or maybe he just thought it was a safe bet—in fact, she was playing for her County women’s team at 16, but, fortunately, like me, buggered off to the US to become a philosopher. So his money was safe]

Michael Bond is dead

by Harry on June 29, 2017

During my second visit to Cincinnati, in 1993, we went to the mysterious Beechmont shopping mall [1], and I noticed, to my great surprise, a remaindered VHS of Paddington Goes to the Movies (with one episode of The Herbs tacked on). I thought to myself “oh, that’ll be handy when we have kids” and, indeed, when we did, 4 years later, the first kid loved it (as do the others, and as do the many young kids who still come to our house). According to the graunaid obit Michael Hordern said that Paddington was one of his three most challenging roles (the others being Lear, and God)—and the truth is that what Bond, Hordern, and Ivor Wood produced in those programmes is magical. But the books are magical too. Paddington causes as much trouble as William Brown or Dennis the Menace [2] or Wooster, but lacks the mischief or malice of the first two and the doltishness of the third: he always reminded me of a mixture of Jennings and Darbyshire about whom I read alongside him. As an adult, with a child who is Paddington-like in many ways, its Mr. Brown I most empathize with. People who don’t like the politicization of children’s literature may have found the recent movie, a flagrant piece of left wing multiculturalist, pro-immmigration, propaganda, a bit much—but it actually stuck close to the books and the TV version: rooting its politics in a long and optimistic English tradition not just through using Bond’s characters (it’s not an accident that Paddington is only the second most English person in the books; the first being Mr Gruber, a Hungarian emigre), but even through the choices of music it used.

I have one Peruvian friend. After I’d gotten to know her well enough to notice how she dresses I realized that I always see her in a duffel coat. Once I knew her well enough to be confident she wouldn’t think I was engaging in some sort of obnoxious national stereotyping I asked her if all Peruvians wear duffel coats (I did not ask if she was from darkest Peru), and was delighted that she got the joke.

Bond’s legacy is almost entirely wonderful—not just Paddington, but The Herbs, Olga da Polga, and Pamplemousse. (For those of you who like crime, the Pamplemousse books are light, funny, but excellent: start with Monsieur Pamplemousse ). One complaint—he is indirectly responsible for the success of the odious Jeremy Clarkson, whose school fees (Repton) were paid for by the income his mother derived from creating and commercializing the stuffed Paddington Bear. Remember that, next time you buy one.

Here he is, singing in the rain:

[1] Much lamented….
[2] The British Dennis the Menace, not the American one, an entirely different kettle of fish who, nevertheless, and by some bizarre coincidence, also first hit the news-stands in March 1951.

Why do people keep saying that a bad agreement is worse than no agreement? They—not just May and her friends, but reasonably serious journalists—say it as if it means something. Isn’t it just the truism that an agreement that is worse than no agreement is worse than no agreement? Why is that observation relevant to anything? Everyone knows it is true, including the EU negotiating team. So the EU negotiating team is not going to try for a worse-than-no-agreement agreement, because they know that if that is the best on offer the UK can just walk away into WTO rules. So the observation that a bad agreement is worse than no agreement has no bearing on anything that anyone should do.

I’m missing something, right? [1] What is it?

[1] Really. I’ve been puzzling about this a while. I suppose an email to Henry should clear things up, but its more fun to open it up on CT, even at the cost of exposing myself as obtuse, which I obviously am being.