Archive for the ‘Personal’ Category

“Has it hit you yet?”

January 24, 2008

I get asked this question once or twice a week now that I’ve graduated. 

I’m not sure which is the most correct answer:  No, Not Yet, or I Don’t Think It Ever Will

I’m a lifelong learner.  Even as I look for jobs, I’m far more interested in what I will learn in my new position than how I can advance the goals of whatever organization eventually employs me.  That’s one of the reason why I’m even considering applying to the Heritage Foundation, even though I rarely agree with what comes out of it.  I find it fascinating to be surrounded by people with different perspectives and experiences than mine.

See, I wanted to finish college, but I didn’t want to finish attending classes; I’m even participating for no credit in the advanced macroeconomics seminar that Steve is teaching.  (You can find my blog for that class, including a great discussion between myself and another philosophy/economics major on the idea of neoclassical economics, here.)  I was just sick of the bureaucracy, and a few other little things, as I discussed in a previous post

I am enjoying the time off, however.  I’m spending perhaps a little too much time playing World of Warcraft with my brother, who will be leaving for Austria for the semester on February 22nd.  I can’t justify it – it is a monumental waste of time and it probably take me away from more important matters (like getting a job) – but it is relaxing and fun and, believe it or not, probably restored my relationship with my younger brother.  But the family, and my brother in particular, is low on cash right now, so he and I have decided to do some temp labor.  For those of you have had the displeasure of taking that route to get some money, you know that there really is nothing else quite like getting up at 4:30am to go sit in a cold warehouse with some of the most disenfranchised members of our society in the hopes that you will get work for maybe $7.25/hr. 

Guess I should start working a little harder to find a job. 

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Reading Critically – A comment

November 8, 2007

A recent incident involving a tasteless, many are saying racist, poster found in a freshman residence hall has created quite a stir on the UMW campus.  This week’s edition of the University of Mary Washington school newspaper, The Bullett, included a letter from one of the residents of the building, whose associates were quoted extensively in the above-linked story, questioning the veracity of the article and the journalistic quality of the paper in general.

My biggest problem with this argument is that it assumes that people would not be angry if they new “the real story.”  It is true that most people would  like to know the real story, but that signifies that students, faculty, staff, and administrators here are reading the school newspaper with a critical eye, seeking facts and filtering out bias whereever they believe it is present.  There are likely those who take what they read at face value, and I will grant that this is an enormous mistake on their part.

Still, anyone reading a second- or third-hand account of anything in any journalistic piece should always keep their guard up.  Bias is everpresent, and whether you are reading The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, your local school newspaper, or my blog, you should only take at face value that which you can verify.  I will grant that at least one advantage of a well-established newspaper over a college newspaper is that much bias can be inferred directly by regularly reading the Op-Ed page.  Perhaps the unfortunate weakness of The Bullett is that its editorials rarely give us an eye onto the latent biases of the editorial staff, only comments on irrelevant matters of dubious value.  This does not, however, negate the truth of the basic facts of the case.  Mr. Bloom’s letter to the editor, while perhaps justified in some respects, does not deny that students printed out and posted a piece of paper in public with a smiling white man embracing a sobbing black man with the caption “Slavery Reinstated:  Get yourself a strong one,” and neither does it deny that the people responsible for the poster and their peers demonstrated a complete disregard for those who were understandably offended by it. 

Mr. Bloom, after critically reading the original story, your response, and the comments you and your peers have posted publicly online, it is still clear to me that the actions and comments of your friends were stupid, irresponsible, and latently racist in nature. 

“Dating” College – Time to Break Up?

October 23, 2007

In this second entry, I want to continue with the theme of reflecting on my education by examining the conflicting influences I feel both to stay at college for another semester…. and to get as far away as possible as soon as possible. 

First, why stay?  In a word, academics.  I enjoy learning, and I’m coming to realize that I thrive in a more structured learning envrionment (I will broach this topic in another entry).  What’s more, there are some really fascinating classes that will be offered next semester, one of which promises to be an extremely unique experience.  There will be an advanced macroeconomics seminar taugh by my academic advisor and friend, Steve Greenlaw.  I denied myself the opportunity to learn in such a setting under him last semester in the belief that I would enjoy another class better, but I regret that choice now. 

Also next semester the anthropology department will be offering its economic anthropology course, a class that I have been hoping they would offer every semester for two years. 

Saving the best for last, my thesis adviser and developmental economist Shawn Humphrey is offering a hands-on policy development and implementation class in conjunction with a local development NGO… all under the guise of a seminar.  This would be a highly unique experience and I am sorely disappointed that I will be missing this class, most of all. 

To restate then, the only thing that is pushing me to stay here is my desire to learn just a little bit more in an environment of my own choosing.  Next semester would promise a very fascinating and, possibly, eye-opening experience.

So why leave? 

Because I’m 26.

Because my girlfriend and I really want to start out lives together.

Because just about everything about this place besides my professors bothers me, and even they drive me nuts from time to time. 

This last point deserves some expansion.  I think that I can split up my grievances into three categories: frustration with the administration, frustration with the student culture, and frustration with the strictures on my education due to an unwillingness or inability to teach certain topics.

With respect to the administration of my college, I find it to be altogether a lumbering and stupid giant of red tape and beauracracy. This is not to slander any one person; rather, the administration lacks a visionary at its vanguard, especially after our former president’s run-in with the law last semester.  I could register a multitude of complaints about the problems this creates, but they are all the typical enormous-glob-of-an-organization grievances.  In general, however, I think the poor administration leads to a disaffected student body, a demoralized teaching staff, and a generally poorer education and overall experience here.

I am also fairly unhappy with the student culture.  I find students to generally be one-dimensional both in their academics and their personal lives, and it does not help that the typical student comes from a fairly narrow cross-section of life experience (white, upper middle-class, usually from northern virginia and or the north-central eastern seaboard).  I want to be careful how judgmental I am, because I am older and and I have had more experience in the “real world.”  Nonetheless, I get the sense that this student body is lacking more than its typical counterpart on other campuses.

My final, and quite tertiary, complaint is that there are limits on how far my education can proceed here. Part of this is self-imposed because of time constraints of my own device.  The other part, however, is a frustration with the ways in which my education in economics has been limited, I feel, by the unwillingness or inability of my economics professors to put a little mathematics into their courses.  I am not the only person to complain about this – there are two other seniors currently doing/planning theses that are equally frustrated with the department in this respect.  We are all three of us potential graduate students in economics, and we are concerned that we are unduly prepared for the mathematical challenges of that environment, despite taking several courses in math independently. These are skills that are going largely unused in the context of our actual specialty, and we find this to be frustrating.  Nonetheless, this is a highly particularistic complaint; the quality of education that the professors do offer is the only thing keeping me here, as discussed above. 

All this makes me wonder if going to college is a little like dating someone.  In some cases, the infatuation can last a long time, several months or even a couple years, before the little things about the person really start to bother you and you have to ask yourself: “Is it worth ending the relationship just because of annoying habit X?”  If so, then better to end it before you start to fight and argue. 

Well, literally, I am starting to fight and argue with almost all aspects of this school.  Conclusion: It’s time to move on. 

Is my education sucking my will to revolt?

September 20, 2007

Over the past week or so, I have grown deeply introspective and somewhat self-critical in the aftermath of my visceral response to the actions and words of one person.  First, some history of my own thought is in order.

After dropping out of college in 2000, I found myself caught in a strange holding pattern of the mind, characterized by a mixture of equally strong parts of intelligence, curiosity, moral certitude, and lack of a formal higher education (which brings with it a lack of critical self-appraisal of one’s own ideas).  Upon this mental state was founded multiple philosophical discourses (which I now consider to be important keepsakes of my intellectual past), a propensity to blame capitalism and corporations for society’s ills, and a general frustration with people in positions of authority.  Not long before my ex-wife and I separated,   I had joined a rather innocuous socialist party, whose intellectual grounding was nevertheless attractive to me.  Its membership was comprised of maybe 20 or so very well-read Marxists; it was so small because the party’s exclusionary membership application process (eight in-depth questions covering everything from party politics to religious sentiments) limited its size and scope.  It was, in the end, a place for intellectuals to register their desire for revolutionary change without feeling pressure to really do anything about it.  That was me, in a nutshell. 

My stint as a Marxist led me to an ironical major and career path:  economics.  It was with the intention of raising holy hell about capitalism that I enrolled in a Principles of Macroeconomics class at my local community college, my first time back at school in three years.  Instead of finding reason to be belligerent, I was impressed by the explanatory power, by the grasp of the enormously complex problems that markets create and solve. 

When I finally returned to Mary Washington College a year later, I was still very much on a rebellious streak inspired by anger at the injustice I perceived around me, yet I found myself weaned off of anti-capitalistic sentiments by economics.  I began to look for still more radical, holistic viewpoints of the world, which I found in a campus group of anarchists.  Still, with time, I began to lose my interest in radical politics all together.  I perceived the solution(s) to society’s injustices to be too complicated to be broached by any one political or economic ideological system.  My association with the anarchist group tapered off more and more as my interest in philosophy and economics increased.  In general, I consider my movement from radicalism to quiet observation and critique (both of my own ideas and the ideas of others’) to be a positive change.  However, there are two tendencies of mine that recent events have brought to my attention, both of which make me wonder if I have strayed too far. 

First, the economic way of thinking (as I have constructed it based on my classes) renders me prone to divorce my notions of justice from my notions of practical possibility.  I see “economic growth” as a phenomenon that is disturbed by legislative attempts to redistribute wealth or power, and I have thereby bought into the notion of “trickle-down” economics, as pundits might call it.  Poverty, racism, classism, increasing inequality of wealth, rampant disaffection with the political system – these things no longer affect me as they once did, and no longer inspire me to revolt against the norm.  Though I started off questioning others’ authority, I was eventually persuaded to question my own authority, and now I find myself defending the activities of the wealthy and powerful in society in the hope that this will somehow see the end to all the world’s problems.  I feel as if I’m stuck choosing the lesser of two evils:  support the powerful, or advocate the redistribution of wealth and all the difficulties that presents.  In the end, I have chosen the former. 

Second, and related to the first, I have stopped questioning out loud.  When I first got into economics, as I said, I was astounded by the explanatory power.  Nonetheless, a lot about the field bothered me:  the implicitly normative nature of homo economicus, the ethnocentrism I discovered in neoclassical and even the more tractable members of the heterodox economics, and the arrogance of economists who seemed to suppose that since policy-makers listened to them, their explanations of phenomena were the best.  I eventually found, however, that constantly arguing these points was exhausting and disruptive of class, and I stopped questioning the subject matter out loud.  I took my problems to professors’ offices, or utilized research projects to look for answers to my objections.  I bought in to the analytical frameworks that my professors were laying out, while simultaneously attempting to remain aloof of the dogmatic traps that devotion to any “way of thinking” laid in my path. 

I think I ultimately failed in this endeavor, or have very nearly failed.  The “shut up and listen” approach I took to the classroom was an attempt to learn how to look at social phenomena through the “objective” lens of economics while still hanging on to the notions of justice, or human nature, or whatever, that I held onto in my head.  In the process, however, I have allowed the practical explanatory power of economics to stretch beyond the purely positivistic, to the point where I now use it in a normative way.  The economic perspective has become my perspective, and in the process I have become as myopic as that of which I was once very critical

It is oh-so-tempting to blame systems for the world’s or even one’s own problems – capitalism, the educational system, government, what have you.  What I have learned in college is a few different methods that I can use to analyze phenomena under the conditions and within the constraints that systems set up.  In the process, however, I seem to have forgotten (or worst of all, ceased to care) about whether the system itself is viable for what its proponents and beneficiaries seek.  “Cui bono?” is a question I have failed to ask more and more often. 

What’s more, I feel… cowed by the relatively comfortable lifestyle promised me by my achievements at this institution and those in the future to come.  Like I’m becoming a support beam for a system I don’t really agree with (at least in terms of the spread between its promises and its fruits).  It’s not a feeling I enjoy.  It’s not that I want to be an anarchist again, or a Christian, or a libertarian, or whatever.  I don’t think the answers to my questions are to be found in an ideology.  But neither are they to be found in tacit collusion with authorities, up to and including – sometimes – the professors whom I respect and admire.  The inner push I have felt to beat my professors at their own game has converted me to their perspective, but not with my conscious approval, and that bothers me. 

So while I stand by the words published in today’s school newspaper, I worry that in doing so I am being hypocritical.  There is something to be said for being a pain in your professor’s ass.  There is something to be said for remaining aloof of dogma not only in your head, but also by speaking out in public, because the public will hold you to your word.  They will expect you to differ, and they will look to you for an alternate explanation, whether they (or you!) buy into it or not.  Even if your classmates seem to think you’re an idiot, speaking out keeps you from settling down, and if done respectfully but insistently it keeps those around you from feeling too comfortable with their personal justification for the world around them.  That can only be a good thing. 

You don’t need to be a revolutionary to think critically about what you hear in class; something is wrong if you experience no cognitive dissonance with respect to what your teachers tell you, because that means you’re not learning anymore – you’re just memorizing.  You should learn how experts think, but you should also expect them to think like beginners, you should insist that they be on their toes.  The classroom should be dynamic, and that dynamism can only derive from the conflict that learners can and incite.  Read, discuss, analyze, synthesize, and evaluate everything that you can.  See if the experts are so diligent.  If they are… that’s a teacher whose class you should never miss.