5 min read

I ♥ universities

This is an old draft that stalled. I started it before I fully understood that this notebook is for real time discovery, and it was a bit too much like arguing an existing case. Let's see if I can finish something that has more of the spirit of discovery that I want, and push it out in one go.

Bryan Caplan has this useful idea of missing moods:

You can learn a lot by comparing the mood reasonable proponents would hold to the mood actual proponents do hold.

How important is this insight in the real world?  Very.  For many popular positions, the reasonable mood is virtually invisible.  For your consideration…

1. The hawk.  Modern warfare almost always leads to killing lots of innocents; if governments were held to the same standards as individuals, these killings would be manslaughter, if not murder.  This doesn’t mean that war is never justified.  But the reasonable hawkish mood is sorrow – and constant yearning for a peaceful path.  The kind of emotions that flow out of, “We are in a tragic situation.  After painstaking research on all the available options, we regretfully conclude that we have to kill many thousands of innocent civilians in order to avoid even greater evils.  This is true even after adjusting for the inaccuracy of our past predictions about foreign policy.”

I have never personally known a hawk who expresses such moods, and know of none in the public eye.  Instead, the standard hawk moods are anger and machismo.  Ted Cruz’s recent quip, “I don’t know if sand can glow in the dark, but we’re going to find out” is typical.

I think about this every time I read a tweet or article about some current problem with universities — financial troubles, useless research, culture war battles — and the underlying emotional tone is barely concealed glee. 'Haha, look at all these stupid dysfunctional institutions! Let's burn them all down and start again!' It looks like Freddie de Boer is off on one in this style this morning. I haven't even read it yet, just looked at the headline and the picture, but it reminded me to finish this.

I do sort of get it. Lots of people have crappy experiences with formal education (including me, but not with the university bit)  and there's a lot of residual anger. Like really a LOT. If people need to process it they need to process it, fine.

So what do I want instead? What's the missing mood? I'm writing this quickly so I can't hope to articulate it well myself. All I can do is paste in relevant things that come to mind, mood board style. Here's a BIG MOOD tweet about academia that comes close:

That's much better, but it's still not exactly what I want tonally, which is... hmm, where is it... so, um, it's an old piece by China Miéville on The Lord of the Rings (I can't find the original, but it got reposted on a forum). My bolds:

Unlike so many of those he begat, Tolkien's vision, never mind any Hail-fellow-well-met-ery, no matter the coziness of the shire, despite even the remorseless sylvan bonheur of Tom Bombadil, is tragic. The final tears in characters' and readers' eyes are not uncomplicatedly of happiness. On the one hand, yay, the goodies win: on the other, shame that the entire epoch is slipping from Glory. The magic goes west, of course, but there's also the peculiar abjuring of narrative form, in the strange echo after the final battle, the Lord of the Rings's post-end end, the Harrowing of the Shire--so criminally neglected by Jackson. In an alternate reality, this piece of scripting would have earned talented young tattooed hipster video-game designer Johnno Tolkien a slapped wrist from his studio: since when do you put a lesser villain straight after the final Boss Battle? But that's the point. The episode concludes 'well', of course, so far as it goes, but in its very pettiness relative to what's just been, it is brilliantly unsatisfying, ushering in an era of degraded parodies of epics, where it's not just the elves that are going: you can't even get a proper Dark Lord any more. Whatever we see as the drive behind tolkien's tragic vision, and however we relate to its politics and aesthetics, the tragedy of the creeping tawdry quotidian gives Middle Earth a powerful melancholia lamentably missing from too much of what followed. It deserves celebrating and reclaiming.

Yep, got it, that's the missing mood: 'shame that the entire epoch is slipping from Glory'. I'm not part of the 'let's replace it with coding bootcamps and Youtube videos' crowd. I ♥ universities even in their somewhat broken state, that world has been deeply important to me, and I love it enough that I still larp as a kind of academic tourist trying to do weird quasi-research on the edge of it. It's tragic to me that it doesn't work as well as it should.

There's a huge amount that bootcamps-and-Youtube don't reach. I think the most important part is depth. Academia still allows for this extraordinary deep specialisation, and most of the information on a given topic is there and nowhere else, held in a distributed way over papers and informal channels. I left straight after PhD, but I went to a quantum foundations school a couple of years ago as part of my tourist larp and I was kind of culture-shocked by being immersed in this stream again, I'd somehow forgotten how deep it goes. There's a tendency for the bootcamps-and-Youtube people to focus on obviously-useful stuff, career-relevant training or other ways to improve your life, and yeah university is often terrible at that and this seems like a big problem. But there's also this huge subterranean structure of knowledge about the surprising amount of detail in the world, and the people who are holding that structure for us are mostly in academia and nowhere else. Replacing this might well be possible, but it would be a huge undertaking.

I've quoted from this thread before, but I still love it and it covers some of the same ground. Gives a sense of that depth:

Another thing I personally love is something like semi-permeability. That's a weird technical-sounding term, and I'd like to have a better one, but all I mean by it is that there aren't sharp boundaries around universities in the way that there are around companies. I've been able to do this 'part-time research tourist' thing and wander onto campuses and apply for schools and conferences. The physics society I'm part of has run informal workshops at universities by just having one or two local students book a few rooms, and then the rest of us just turn up, no passes or filling out forms or anything. This works because universities seem to naturally want to be like cities more than they want to be like companies, it's somehow in their bones from a thousand years of deep history. I'm sure that here's a large contingent of boring administrators who want universities to be exactly like companies, but so far they haven't won, and you can just walk in.

I'm sure that there's a lot more I could say but I'm writing these notebook posts in one sitting, and there are other things I want to do with my day, so I'm going to end abruptly here. Anyway you get the idea, I ♥ universities and when they mess up I am sad about it.