Posted by: clholoman | November 7, 2015

Crossing the Streams

In my post about summer reading, I noted my profound love and admiration for Marilynne Robinson as a novelist. Since then, she has been interviewed  by (n.b.)  the President, and has a new collection of non-fiction essays published. I assume the following will be in her next essay collection, since she has said clearly that she collects her talks until there are enough to publish and then does so. Here she is on the topic of this blog:

Offering a “variety of fields of study and great freedom to choose among them,” Robinson said, American education “has served as a mighty paradigm for the kind of self-discovery Americans have historically valued.”

Our vast educational culture is “unlike anything else in the world” and “emerged from the glorious sense of the possible, and explored and enhanced the possible through the spread of learning. If it seems to be failing now, this is true because we have forgotten what it is for,” she said.

With so much emphasis on a utilitarian education today, Robinson said, “Emerson might be surprised to find us in such a state after generations of great freedom.”

Robinson attributes the current lack of support for seemingly non-utilitarian education to broad changes in political and economic ideals, a shift best characterized by the replacement of “the citizen” with “the taxpayer.”

“While the citizen can entertain aspirations for the society as a whole and take pride in its achievements, the taxpayer, as presently imagined, simply does not want to pay taxes,” Robinson said, noting that this conflict of interest has left many great public universities “like beached vessels of unknown origin … ripe for looting insofar as what they hold would find a market.”

But, Robinson added, “a human community with a history and with a habit of aspirations toward democracy, requiring a capacity in its public for meaningful decisions about its life and direction, exists apart from these [economic] forces and is at odds with them.”

Thanks to the AAC&U for bringing this to my attention.

Posted by: clholoman | September 1, 2015

Back to School, Back to Basics

I feel like I am often writing about “sub-themes” of this blog. Well today, friends, we are back to the heart of the matter. As we kick off another new academic year, not coincidentally Slate is running a fun series on what classes made a difference in many of their staffers’ lives. These are the things we mean when we talk about the importance of a liberal arts education. The most important lessons you learn are not always the ones you were looking for. And you find them in surprising places. And how often the course you may have liked least will stick with you longest.

And, on a different note, as most of you know, this is our year for re-accreditation. Here’s a nice primer on the issues around accreditation, why the system is flawed, but is also unlikely to change. So when I (and other folks at Hilbert) am fixated on “Middle States,” you’ll have some idea what we’re talking about.

Happy September–let’s have a great year.

Posted by: clholoman | August 18, 2015

Size Matters

Regular readers (if there are any left) know that maps are a sub-theme of this blog. I love maps. I love teaching about maps. One of my favorite lectures when I taught World Geography and History was an early one on the problem of map projection. I’m sure you know most of this, but anyway: it’s impossible to represent the round(ish) earth on a flat piece of paper without introducing some distortion. It might represent distances accurately, but not direction. It might be right on latitude, but distorts longitude. Etc.

The familiar Mercator projection is notorious for one aspect of its distortion. As you get farther from the equator, the sizes of land masses get badly misrepresented.

This has led to grave misunderstanding about the sizes of continents and countries. (We’ll set aside the issue of the map being centered on the US.)

But now we can fix that! Here’s a cool web site that you can drag and drop states and countries on top of one another to compare. Watch how New York grows if you drag it to the poles! Note that the lower 48, China, and India could fit into Africa with room to spare!

This is not new knowledge, obviously, just a new tool. Here’s the Atlantic article that led me to it. Make sure you watch the embedded West Wing clip. It kind of makes fun of the issue, but there are real social justice implications from the “common knowledge” that we have learned from this map.

The good news is that Mercator has (justifiably) fallen out of favor. But other projections have their own issues. Perhaps we need to go back to globes in the classroom.

Posted by: clholoman | May 27, 2015

The Heat Is On

Blog fav Dan Drezner posted his summer reading list yesterday, and that seemed like a fun idea to steal build upon. A couple of his entries look interesting to me:

And for the other side of my professional hat, I just got these (I really only ordered the first one and the second one appeared along with it; I’m not quite as pessimistic as this makes it look (yet?):

And for fun, first, two things I am in the middle of:

  • Shelby Foote’s 3 volume history of the Civil War. I’ve gotten bogged down in this at least once before, but I am attributing that to how physically large the books are–makes it hard to read in bed. I am making better progress now that I have them on Kindle, but I started over. Just coming up on Shiloh, so still a long way to go.
  • Lila, by Marilyn Robinson. If you haven’t read any of her work, start now. This is the third book in the fictional town of Gilead, and I suggest you start with the first one, with that as the title. But it’s probably not necessary. She is a prose craftsman. I read her very slowly to savor the words.

And finally, this was lent to me with a very high recommendation a good long time ago. It’s dauntingly long, but I need to read it and return to owner:

There is no way I am going to finish (or even start?) all of these, but you know what Daniel Burnham said: “make no little plans…” How about you? What are you reading or planning to?

ETA a couple of other, more summer-y, lists:
Posted by: clholoman | March 2, 2015

And one more

Last (probably) on this. A better rejoinder to the ISIS article is here (also from The Atlantic).

The author makes a helpful (if not terribly surprising) clarification:

The first thing I teach my undergraduates is that the English word “Islam” has two distinct but related meanings: the “Islam” that corresponds to Christendom (the civilization) and the “Islam” that corresponds to Christianity (the religion). The result is that the term “Islamic” has two separate but related uses, as does “un-Islamic.”

In his article and elsewhere, Wood has challenged the claim by Muslims that ISIS is un-Islamic by pointing out that ISIS members are self-identified Muslims. But Muslims who say “ISIS is un-Islamic” are not saying that ISIS fighters are not Muslims at all. They are calling ISIS “un-Islamic” the way a politician might call bigotry “un-American.”

Interestingly, he ends up at about the same place that I asserted in my last post that I believe the original author was headed, the “orrery of errors”:

All of this puts Muslims in a double bind: If they just go about their lives, they stand condemned by those who demand that Muslims “speak out.” But if they do speak out, they can expect to be told that short of declaring their sacred texts invalid, they are fooling themselves or deceiving the rest of us. Muslims are presented with a brutal logic in which the only way to truly disassociate from ISIS and escape suspicion is to renounce Islam altogether.

Posted by: clholoman | February 18, 2015

On the other hand

The article I wrote about yesterday has generated a lot of buzz. In the interest of dialogue, here’s an article that takes issue with the Atlantic piece. My initial reaction is that this response, while serving as a valuable counterweight, kind of misses the point. I don’t think the original author, Graeme Wolf, is claiming that ISIS is an “inevitable product of Islam.” And I certainly hope that Wood doesn’t get lumped in with some of the narrow minded bigots cited in the article (I have a particular problem with Franklin Graham, but we’ll leave it at that for now.)

What I think Wolf is suggesting is that ISIS’s theology or worldview or whatever, is so fully self contained and self reinforcing that it is difficult to argue against–it exists on a different plane, in some sense, from “normal” thinking. E.P. Thompson coined (as far as I know) the phrase “orrery of errors.”  (An orrery is a mechanical model of the solar system, usually mechanical. Once set in motion, it continues to operate in a self-contained manner in a way that is difficult to disrupt.) That seems to apply here.

Posted by: clholoman | February 17, 2015

Read this, please

I am a little reluctant to post this, as it is really making the rounds, so I suspect anybody who is reading this has seen it already. But this article is really indispensable. It is the first thing I’ve read that helped me make any sense of ISIS and the mindset that would lead to the barbaric atrocities being committed. It also shows the need to have really in-depth knowledge and the ability to understand sometimes subtle nuances, most notably how trying to label them as not Muslim is not just incorrect, but actually probably not helpful. How in the world do enough people get this kind of background in order to have productive discussions about vital policy decisions? (I suppose I should be heartened that this article is getting so much attention, but I am fearful of the number of people who will not even bother, given the length. (tl;dr as they say).)

I would be interested in a longer discussion of how ISIS fits into an older and broader debate about the  inherent value of modernity. Maybe it doesn’t, as it is apparently trying to replicate a society of a particular moment in history. But the brutality makes it hard (almost impossible for me, sometimes) to engage with their ideas at any level other than revulsion. (Similarly, the point that their religious fundamentalism requires them to reject any form of international cooperation or recognize the basic tenets of sovereignty on which the system is built could be interesting, but seems so beside the point right now.)

Contrast with this article from Slate. There’s nothing inherently wrong with it and it gives some useful information, but doesn’t do anything to help us put this data in any context.

(I can’t close without noting that the author of the Atlantic piece makes some grating word choices: “mujahideen chic” “a gentrifying area that one might call Dar al-Hipster;” etc. Ugh.)

Posted by: clholoman | February 10, 2015


I bet you thought this blog was dead. Ha, no! It was only pinin’ for the fjords.

Two topics for your consideration. There has been an exchange between two distinguished scholars in the op/ed pages the last two days and it makes for a fairly painless way to learn some international relations theory, and to see how reasonable people can disagree. The subject is what to do about Ukraine. Yesterday, John Mearsheimer, a noted realist (some would say hawk) made the case for not arming Ukraine in the New York Times. Today, blog fav Dan Drezner over at the WaPo, points out some issues with Mearsheimer’s analysis (and perhaps inconsistencies with M’s own earlier writings, although I’m not convinced by that.) (Disclosure:  Mearsheimer was one of my grad school profs, but I was on the other side of IR–political economy rather than security studies.) I don’t know where I come down on this yet, but it’s fascinating both as a case study in progress and, unfortunately, because the stakes are pretty high, I think.

Second, I must pay tribute to Dean Smith. To those of us of a certain age living in North Carolina, much less for those of us who attended UNC, Coach Smith was one of the towering figures. Lots of amazing words written, but here are three excellent ones:

A terrific story from a professor.

From Charlie Pierce, one of the better sportswriters working today.

And this one by (Dukie) John Feinstein, with this great quote: “John, you should never be proud of doing the right thing. You should just do the right thing.”

I am glad Coach Smith has found rest.

OK, don’t get spoiled by two posts in two days. It’s just that there was one thing out this morning that had to get onto this blog, as it features at least three of our persistent themes (or sub-themes): Political Economy, maps, and visual presentations of data. Here is Vox’s Thirty Maps that Explain the Global Economy. A couple of them don’t really belong (and are a couple of them actually maps?) But on the whole, really interesting. I haven’t decided about Vox yet. I respect the founders and it seems to be kind of “buzzy” but a lot of their headlines seem fairly click-baity to me. (Maybe there’s a relationship there.) But I’ve added it to my “daily” set of tabs that I open first thing in the morning.

And here’s a piece from the Atlantic on Minerva University and is it the future of higher education. As I have said about similar articles on the blog, I dunno. This sentence from towards the end seems right: “Yet in some ways, the worst possible outcome would be for U.S. higher education to accept Minerva as its model and dismantle the old universities before anyone can really be sure that it offers a satisfactory replacement.”  The MOOC revolution never took off (although, in fairness, the article says the MOOC movement was a necessary part of Minerva’s development.)

And now, since we had movies yesterday, we’ve hit just about all the Big Topics for this blog except for college basketball. Oh wait, did you see Marcus Paige was named a pre-season All-American and a “popular pick for pre-season Player of the Year?”

Posted by: clholoman | August 25, 2014

Once more into the breach, dear friends

We began another school year today, a week earlier than historically. This was our fifth year opening with a Convocation ceremony. It’s nice, I think, in an informal, welcoming way. Anyway, I ran across this on Slate and it seemed like a perfect way to start the year. If you’ve been reading this blog you know I love movies and am a sucker for a good supercut. And here we have one on Deans (or Provosts!) losing it. Note that language is PG-13 or higher. And be sure to stay for a nice touch at the end.


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