The Marketplace of Ideas: Menand's book on the American University

Though much of what Louis Menand argues in the book is about the teaching and production of PhDs in the humanities, and more specifically about English PhDs, it makes interesting reading for anyone interested in higher education in the United States.

Now that I am past that hurdle of graduate school anxiety, meaning having to answer the question "What hell are you still doing in graduate school?", this book was pleasurable reading. When I say graduate school, I mean graduate school that leads to a PhD and not a professional degree such as Law, MBA, or a master's degree.

T. M., a colleague, often remarked that friends were thinking about law school, went to law school, graduated from law school and got a job, all in the time that T.M. took to working towards his PhD degree in Neuroscience. (Law school takes 4 years, an MBA 2 years, and the average PhD in the sciences about 5-6 years, and in the humanities much more).

The first part of Menand's book covers General Education. Questions about what should be taught in college that is common across disciplines. This has been taken up in more detail and better addressed by Menand in the New Yorker article that is a must-read. (Menand's article on: Why we have college? in the New Yorker) 
It's sometimes claimed that learning any scholarly field well developed general mental faculties, which may the be applied to problems and issues encountered in life after college. But problems and issues in the academic world are not always analogous to problems and issues encountered in life after college... and there are matters [such as law, architecture, engineering] that everyone has to deal with in life, and knowing something about them is important to participate effectively in the political process. But college students have no more sophisticated an understanding of them than people who have attended only high school do.
It is fairly obvious to anyone who went to college in India, that Menand would be horrified if he learned about the Indian system. To most Indians Menand might well be splitting hairs. It is perhaps a popular, and in my opinion, an incorrect idea that Indian undergraduate education is far superior to an American-style undergraduate education. That reeks less of an objective comparison and more of a subjective, or patriotic idea. A related post in the NYTimes (thanks to J.) that shows that it ain't that easy getting in.

The second part of the book covers the Crisis of Legitimation that is faced by the humanities. As a science major it was somewhat fascinating to read the description of anxiety that faces a PhD student in the humanities. Not only does it take the average English (or anthropology) student about 9-10 years to graduate, he/she is often faced with existential anxiety about their discipline. Menand in his book writes, that while most people don't really understand what physicists are studying, yet they believe that having a physics department is a good 'return on investment. Such a question when asked of the humanities could not be satisfactorily answered and that lead to anxiety about their disciplines. His remarks on 'interdisciplinary' made hilarious reading. That word is so popular that it is hard to see any conference, or program at a university not mention it. Menand writes, "Interdisciplinarity is an administrative name for an anxiety and a hope that are personal."

The Economist wrote a lengthy economic analysis of the value of the Phd (see my related comment) and concluded that it was not a good return on investment. But, people still do them.  We would not have any poems, novels,  painting or music if everyone was homo economicus and chose to make the best return on investment decisions. There is more to life than money, and also aspiring PhDs must realise that only 5% of them actually end up with jobs in academia. Unfortunately, the academy chooses to ignore this fact and makes many of them ill-prepared for life outside academia. The Economist and Menand seem to agree that it's actually in the universities' interest that supply of aspiring PhD students exceed the demand for the finished product. The unfinished products, the graduate students, or the ABDs (all but the dissertation), are a highly qualified talent pool for jobs such as research and teaching that save the universities tons of money instead of hiring full-time faculty.

The Marketplace of Ideas On Amazon

Thoughts on the Wallenberg Medal 2011 for Aung San Suu Kyi

It was a rare privilege to witness the Aung San Suu Kyi being presented with the Wallenberg Medal by the University of Michigan last night. As Aung San does not leave Burma due to the fear that she may not be let back in, the medal was presented in absentia and her lecture was pre-recorded. The highlight of the evening was the question and answer with Ms. Kyi that was live (via Skype). Even after years of captivity and sporadic contact with the outside world, Ms. Kyi's face showed no signs of bitterness, defeat or exhaustion. She was very animated and showed a great sense of humor in her responses. She talked about the struggle against fear (quoting Tagore's Where the Mind is Without Fear) and oppression that are universal and that her case was only very particular. It's only extraordinary people that think that their lives are quite ordinary.

Not once did I hear her use the word 'I' while talking about the Burmese struggle for democracy. It was always 'us', 'we', or 'the Burmese people'. She was quick to praise the achievements of others. She believes the struggle in Burma is a personal and a limited one - meaning, it is for her people and her society, as opposed to Raoul Wallenberg's, which was for a different people and a different religion. Her modesty was genuine. Giants standing on the shoulders of giants.

In her curious accent that seemed to be a mix of her education in Burma, India and Britain, she narrated a humorous story about the three happiest days in a Burmese man's life: the day he becomes a novice monk, the day he gets married and the day he is released from jail. She said that reflects on what the Burmese think of their own society.

Why now?
In no way reflecting on Ms. Kyi's courage, I have some issues with the university for giving her the medal now. Arguments which I have taken up in another forum. In summary, I felt that this award has come too late and that it would have been more imaginative of the university to give it someone new and focus attention on people who are still relatively unknown. (check back for updates) instead of trying to cash-in on Ms. Kyi's celebrity.

Women in power? or not really?
In 1988, Ms. Kyi got swept up in protests and became a part of movement that she no initial intention of being a part of.  There was a question from an undergraduate about the role and suitability of women in leadership and if this hindered her role in the movement. I feel bad for American women who despite all their advances seem to be plagued by the fact that there has no woman President so far.  Is is true as Ms. Kyi mentioned in her response that "women are equally capable as men" and "the first female head of state was a woman - Srimavo Banradranaike from Sri Lanka..", but there is slightly pessimistic view. Women are not so much the issue as  South Asian seems to gravitate towards dynastic leadership.  It seems like a perversion to think that  while South Asia has been replete with examples of women being in power - Indira Gandhi in India (and now Sonia Gandhi), Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia in Bangladesh, Bhutto in Pakistan, the average women in all of these countries is far from equal than men. This is not so much a gender issue as it seems but that South Asian seems to love and trust dynastic rule. In Ms. Kyi's case as the daughter of the first leader of Burma it was around her that people rallied. It seems contradictory that appears as democracy prima facie is patrimonialism in another guise.

As someone who has had greatness thrust upon them, Ms. Kyi has done remarkably well to keep her celebrity out and to give credit to others in the struggle. It is the world's fault that we cannot name a single leader apart from Ms. Kyi. Surely, as she herself said in as many words that  there are many unknown people who are leading lives of even greater courage, who are still unsung. It was a great honor to be in presence of such a great person. She is really a steel magnolia, the softness and gentle eyes overlay that indomitable courage and resilience.  She talked about her struggles as a child in conquering her fear of the dark.  She said she walked in dark rooms for two weeks and then it was gone. Since 1988, she has been under, more or less, house arrest. One wonders how long she will have to wander in the dark rooms of Burma before she conquers the tyranny of military rule.

Wallenberg Medal and Lecture website at Umich

Dos Gardenias - Buena Vista Club

The great Ibrahim Ferrer singing Machin's Dos Gardenias. Lovely phrasing!

Dos Gardenias
(Antonio Machin)

Dos Gardenias para ti 
con ellas quiero decir 

te quiero; te adoro; mi vida. 
Ponles toda tu atencion 
porque son tu corazon y el mio. 
Dos Gardenias para ti 
que tendran todo el calor de un beso.
De esos besos que te di 
y que jamas encontraras 
en el calor de otro querer.
A tu lado viviran 
y te hablaran
como cuando estas conmigo.
Y hasta creeras 
que te diran: te quiero.
Pero si un atardecer 
las gardenias de mi amor, se mueren 
es porque han adivinado 
que tu amor se a terminado
porque existe otro querer.

(translated by h.p.)
Two gardenias for you
with them I want to say
I love you; adore you; my life
Give them all your attention
as they are your heart as well as mine
Two gardenias for you
that  have all the warmth of a kiss,
Of those kisses that I give you
and that you'll never find
in the warmth of another.

By your side they will live
and they will talk to you
as if you were with me
and if you will believe
that they will tell you: I love you
but if one dusk
the gardenias of my love die
it is because they have discovered

that your love is finished
because another love exists

Apples vs. chips: an experiment into food behavior

Last week I conducted an informal experiment at work. This the kind of 'scientific' experiment that J. classifies as needless and silly, since the general conclusion is quite obvious. My reasons to do that experiment were:
a) People could surprise you with their behavior,  and b) mainly, because it's fun to do experiments, c) I had a grant (meaning the raw material was paid for)

The main motivation was  to determine if people make good food choices when such choices are available. As a graduate student I often found that when stuck in the lab late in the evening or  night the only 'food' option was  the vending machine mostly full of all kinds of crappy snacks. The kind of snacks that Indra Nooyi, CEO of Pepsi food has decided to re-brand as 'fun for you'. Their other labels are 'good for you' and 'better for you'. Of course, the irony of Pepsi marketing itself as a health-food company and the relativistic nature of their labels is inescapable.  Another disturbing story that I read was that experiments on rats have shown that babies could acquire a taste for junk food in-utero.(In review of Lindstrom's book on advertising in the Economist).

At some point, I wrote to the President and the authorities to make such healthy snacks available. The University did make this available and called it M-healthy. They were not not that healthy, but better than just chips and other crap that's usually in vending machines.

Yet, it begs the question - do people actually want to eat healthy?  When polled people  it is unlikely that anyone would say something other than - "I want to eat healthy, if such choices were available." Though what people say and what they do is quite different. The actual pattern of behaviors exposes their 'revealed preferences'.

The question is that faced with an apple or a potato chip what does one do? More honestly speaking, what would I do?

The Experiment
In the company lunch room where people leave stuff to share/ give-away I placed the following items last Monday morning:
18 apples ( 11 Red Delicious, 4 Fuji, 3 Granny Smiths)
3 bags of chips (regular, multigrain and tortilla chips without any salsa)
2 packets of crackers

Null Hypothesis:
All free food is equal and will be eaten in equal amounts.

The chips would be all eaten.
Apples would not be as popular.
Crackers would be more popular than apples


Wednesday: Two bags of chips were finished. Tortilla chips were not. 13/18 apples were eaten
Thursday: All bags of chips were gone. Packet of crackers gone. 11/18 apples eaten
Monday: One packet of crackers remained. 10/18 apples remained. Interestingly, all the Granny Smith apples were gone.

It must be noted that the experimenter also was part of the experiment and ate 1 apple and some amount of chips to keep the consumption roughly equal.

Possible explanations and factors at play.

1) Chips are tastier and pound for pound offer more calories and are a better 'investment'.
2) Apples have a higher 'adoption barrier', as they have to be washed, either cut, or bit into and it can be messy with juicy apples
3) Red Delicious is not so delicious. If there were more Granny Smiths, then the ratio could have been different leading to different conclusions.
4) People bring their own apples, and not chips and were supplementing their diet with the chips that were laid out.
5) Chips don't go bad, and apples do. So after Day 3, the apples were less appealing.
6) Eating chips requires less commitment, meaning that chips can be eaten in small quantities (one chip to a dozen or more), but you have to commit to eating an entire apple.
7) Corollary to the above: you may not be hungry for an entire apple. In a sense, an apple will actually increase your caloric intake in large quanta.
8) The chips were of better quality than the apples. The experimenter admits that this was not controlled for.

I leave that you to gentle reader.( I would hate to give it away). I am sure J. would appreciate my silence and absence of analysis).

What happens next?
I am curious to know what is the half-life of the apples. They still stand at 11.