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Harry

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.

Another Open Thread on the UK Election.

by Harry on June 8, 2017

Nobody believes exit polls, obviously. But go ahead, say whatever comes to mind, as long as it keeps to our comments policy.

Open thread on the UK election

by Harry on June 7, 2017

So, what’s going to happen tomorrow? And what will it mean for the future? Who have been your favorite and least favorite performers? Who will be leading the Labour Party in 6 months time? Who will be leading the Conservative Party? More amusingly and less consequentially who will be leading UKIP (will Farage come back yet again?). In making your predictions, bear in mind Jeremy Hardy’s comment on the News Quiz last week: “If you’d asked me three years ago which of my friends was most likely to become leader of the Labour Party I wouldn’t have put Jeremy Corbyn in the top 20, and he’d have been far below Tim Brooke-Taylor”. Personally I’m not sure Jeremy Corbyn would have been in the top 20 Jeremys most likely to lead the Labour Party at that point.

Please remember the comments policy—in particular, no personal insults. I’ll check in as well as I can to moderate comments, but for those of you who live in the country in question, remember I am 6 hours behind (maybe the UKers will approve comments in a more timely fashion). If you’re lucky I’ll open another thread when the polls close….

The Color of Law

by Harry on May 31, 2017

I just finished Richard Rothstein’s brilliant—and far from uplifting—book The Color of Law. It’s been getting a lot of favorable press, and rightly so.

The book accepts (for the sake of argument, maybe—Rothstein is always parsimonious in his arguments) the principle that Chief Justice Roberts puts forward when he says that if residential segregation ‘is a product not of state action but of private choices, it does not have constitutional implications’. It is devoted to showing that, contrary to the prevailing myth that residential segregation (between whites and African Americans) is a product of a private choices it is, in fact, a product of government policies, all the way from the Federal level to the most local level, and this is true in the North as well as the South. Housing segregation in the US is de jure, not de facto. And… it shows just that. He makes his case in careful, meticulous detail, but in unfussy and inviting prose, packed with illuminating stories that illustrate the central claims.

Here are some of the basic mechanisms through which government in some cases reinforced and in other created housing segregation:

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I stayed up on election night to watch the results come in (can’t wait till June 8th, that’s going to be a thriller!). I had a bad feeling about the whole thing starting the moment I walked on campus that morning, and I had pretty much resigned myself to the result by about 7.30 pm (Central). But I stayed up anyway, partly because I that’s just what I do, and partly because the first test match between England and India started at 10 pm, and I couldn’t wait to see Haseeb Hameed, whom everyone was talking about. And, indeed, you could see why they were talking about him (as Aggers said, in frustration at the England camp trying to dampen down pressure: “Are we supposed to pretend we’re not seeing what we are seeing?”; or, imagine being 19 and hearing Geoffrey describe you as “a proper opening bat”).

But the player who really shone that night was Moeen Ali, who, fortunately, was still in when I awoke the next morning. And that seemed particularly fitting to me, because he seems to be the embodiment of everything Donald Trump isn’t.

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