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That dumb NYU chemistry professor thing
Posted by Heebie-Geebie on 10.06.22

This thing with the fired NYU professor seemed like such a parody of catnip for online debate that I couldn't drum up any interest in it. Then my colleague started ranting about it and now, despite myself, I feel like I've been sucked in.

It just seems nonsensical as presented, which makes me assume that there's more going on. This other story from a publication I've never heard of makes the case that the guy is just a terrible teacher. Maybe that's all it is.

ANYWAY. When I took organic chemistry, I did quite well and broke the curve in a gigantic auditorium of a class*. It's not because I was a genius though. It's because there was a coursepack of past exams. Presumably the faculty did this because the frats and sororities were known to have all past exams on file, and so they wanted to even the playing field. There hadn't been any homework problems assigned from the coursepack, however. I somehow looked inside it and realized the past exams were nothing like the homework. The homework questions were easy-ish, and the exam questions were logic problems. So I did all the past exams and did very well on the exam, and that's my high-water mark as a student right there. Good job, fall 1995 Heebie.

I have a much funnier vaguely connected story, but will reserve it for the comments.

*This class was so big that there was a student across the room who looked like my brother (who was also attending the same university as me) and it took me multiple classes of staring to figure out if it was actually my brother or not. I was too far away to tell for sure.

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Guest Post: Bang!
Posted by Heebie-Geebie on 10.05.22

Mossy Character writes:
For All Mankind the Benefit of All.

Heebie's take: 11 seconds to impact:


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Guest Post: Politics of Meritocracy
Posted by Heebie-Geebie on 10.04.22

Nick S writes: In a recent post , Noah Smith tries to think about how to present a liberal political vision:

But the basic idea is compelling. The point that our vision of the future must be concrete and tangible, rather than vague and abstract . . . [P]ersonally, the ideology I want to triumph is liberal democracy -- not too different from what the New Dealers envisioned. And I worry that in recent decades, liberal democracy has defined itself too much in terms of what it's against, without offering a picture of what kind of world it wants to build.

He offers some reasonable comments about urbanism, pluralism, and personal freedom (all selling points worth mentioning). But I find myself thinking about what he doesn't say, and what makes the exercise challenging, and I bump up against this post by Timothy Burke about meritocracy, which is deeply pained.

This critique of meritocracy is on some level identical to a wider critique of inequality and capitalism, but there is something about the bland rhetoric of conventionalized meritocracy as it appeared in the last quarter of the 20th Century that normalized doctrines whose previous manifestations were more obviously repulsive, say in the case of Social Darwinism. More people were for a long time comfortable with the premises of meritocratic social organization, across a wider span of institutions and situations. All of that said, I'm about to say something that runs in the face of this critique, which is that for all that meritocracy is both a lie and a moral catastrophe, it may be better than a status quo where all the hierarchies remain intact but we are not even really pretending to have meritocratic training or standards any longer because it's just too embarrassing to act as if we have done so.

It occurs to me that one of the biggest challenges for left-liberalism is a vision of a society that (approximately) offers virtue rewarded -- that people do well for themselves by exhibiting social virtues (creativity, industry, empathy, etc . . . .), and I wanted to ask for help envisioning that.

Am I just feeling burned out and exhausted at the moment? Am I imagining a problem where none exists, or is there genuinely a tension between current left-liberal politics and a politics that says, "to a close-enough approximation we live in a society in which people are rewarded for their efforts." If there is a tension, what would it take to resolve it? How much would society have to change to believe that statement?

At the moment, that feels very far away, but I think it would be an important part of a compelling political vision.

Heebie's take: I am also interested in other people's answers, because all my answers are kind of a bummer.

Do I actually want to live in a meritocracy? I want a qualified person to do a job, and sometimes, when resources are limited and the job is important, it should be the most qualified person. But mostly I'm more concerned with floors, beneath which no one sinks. (Everyone gets a safe place to live. Everyone gets quality health care and access to nutritious food . Etc.) But none of that is novel or very interesting, so it doesn't motivate social change very well, as we see. (The other problem with my vision is that the moment it's achieved, sleazy people start working to erode it. I don't know how to make anything stick.)

How do you motivate a virtuous life, society-wide? I think:
1. Tighten up consequences on scammers
2. Tighten up how quickly incompetent people are caught and removed from making decisions/being incompetent
3. Shore up the social safety net so that it's not ruinous to incompetent people to remove them from those situations.

And even then, nothing is permanent and everything falls apart. I think I'm also feeling burned out and exhausted.

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