Category Archives: Ideas and Provocations

The quality of political discussion

When we discuss policy or politics, do we argue in order to win the day or to seek the truth? In two recent NY Times articles, Thomas Friedman and Patricia Cohen explore the allure of both approaches.


Intelligence and interdisciplinarity

The New York Times obituary for historian and public intellectual Tony Judt, who died recently, hints that his writing has much to offer GLS programs. Praising Mr. Judt for his “ability to see the present in the past” and for “free-ranging inquiry across disciplines,” the article points out a longer passage from a 2005 interview in which he recalls Raymond Aron, a French professor with a “capacity to move unselfconsciously between disciplines for the purpose of understanding things.” Judt suggests that our very thought may be hobbled if we are unable to follow that example:

A historian also has to be an anthropologist, also has to be a philosopher, also has to be a moralist, also has to understand the economics of the period he is writing about. Though they are often arbitrary, disciplinary boundaries certainly exist. Nevertheless, the historian has to learn to transcend them in order to write intelligently. (Jan./Feb. 2006, Historically Speaking)

The New York Review of Books offers a series of Judt’s articles and blog postings for those who would like to read more. For example, in a recent blog entry Judt talked about the way our choice of social role–a profession or a particular public role in society–also weighs upon our written words and influences their nature and quality:

The “professionalization” of academic writing—and the self-conscious grasping of humanists for the security of “theory” and “methodology”—favors obscurantism. This has encouraged the rise of a counterfeit currency of glib “popular” articulacy: in the discipline of history this is exemplified by the ascent of the “television don,” whose appeal lies precisely in his claim to attract a mass audience in an age when fellow scholars have lost interest in communication. But whereas an earlier generation of popular scholarship distilled authorial authority into plain text, today’s “accessible” writers protrude uncomfortably into the audience’s consciousness. It is the performer, rather than the subject, to whom the audience’s attention is drawn. (“Words,” 7/17/10, NYR Blog)

Brooks on dual consciousness

Columnist David Brooks contrasts the fabled stability of certain large organizations with a surprisingly adaptable one, the United States Army:

They say that intellectual history travels slowly, and by hearse. The old generation has to die off before a new set of convictions can rise and replace entrenched ways of thinking. People also say that a large organization is like an aircraft carrier. You can move the rudder, but it still takes a long time to turn it around.

The Army, Brooks says, has substantially changed its mind and its practices in a few short years, in part because it has found a way to link action and reflection, experience and inquiry:

The process was led by these dual-consciousness people — those who could be practitioners one month and then academic observers of themselves the next. They were neither blinkered by Army mind-set, like some of the back-slapping old guard, nor so removed from it that their ideas were never tested by reality, like pure academic theoreticians.

Read more of “Leading With Two Minds” in the May 7, 2010 New York Times.

What is Graduate Liberal Studies?

One AGLSP member program, at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, shares their answer to the question in a beautiful, brief YouTube movie.

Mocking the academic sentence

What is academic writing? Good question. What is it good for? And what are its strengths and weaknesses?The Writing Program at University of Chicago has a run at the general topic by offering a spoofy academic sentence generator, which will create jargon-laden monsters at the click of a button. Any thoughts about good academic writing, by the way? Leave a comment here?

Seminar skills: Listening

Mastering Peter Bregman’s three steps for good listening might strengthen the work we do in our graduate seminars, since he clearly shows the difference between trying to win arguments and trying to understand something. Check out his brief, lively blog posting and come back here to share your view. Do our programs teach effective listening? Should they?

From the hiring desk

Nell Minow, head of a corporate governance research firm, described the traits she seeks in an employee — traits well known to us in the world of graduate liberal studies:

I really look for a kind of a passionate curiosity. I think that is indispensable, no matter what the job is. You want somebody who is just alert and very awake and engaged with the world and wanting to know more.

And this is where it starts sounding like I’m looking for someone to date, but I also look for a sense of humor, because that’s really the best indicator of some kind of perspective about the world. And ultimately I won’t hire anybody who can’t write.

I tell them to give me what they think is the best example of their ability to communicate. It’s just tremendously important, their precision, their vocabulary, their sense of appropriateness of communication.

(Adam Bryant interview, “Think ‘We’ For Best Results,” NY Times, 4/19/09)