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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

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Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

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Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

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john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

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Sunday, August 14, 2005

Trump Trumps Goety

Posted by Jonathan Goodwin on 08/14/05 at 11:08 AM

Valve contributor Mark Bauerlein reviews Steven Berlin Johnson’s Everything Bad is Good For You in the June 2005 number of The New Criterion. (The review is available through EBSCO Host and similar, though perhaps the author could be persuaded to have it put on-line for the purposes of discussion.)

I disagree with several aspects of the review, but I have not yet read Johnson’s book (or Blink or Freakonomics--all of which, we must agree, have the air of cluster). So, I’m going to focus on a small but important point:

If teenagers spent less time on blog diaries [NB: idiom] and more doing algebra, the U.S. might climb higher than the low twenties in international rankings by math aptitudes. If we prize decision-making skills, a few months with Plutarch’s heroes are worth a lifetime of The Apprentice (which Johnson compares to The Price is Right and judges “an intellectual masterpiece").

Briefly, it’s my understanding that these international math olympiads suffer from the Iowa SAT syndrome: Iowa has, or at least used to, the highest average SAT scores of any state because fewer of its students take the test than any other state. That the U.S., with its much more democratic tracking, scores lower than some other industrialized nations is no more surprising than Quantitative SAT scores being higher at Georgia Tech than Emory. (This may in fact not be true, but you get the point.)

The second point, about which I’m more confident, has to do with what you can learn about decision-making from Plutarch. Take Themistocles:

When Themistocles was about to sacrifice, close to the admiral’s galley, there were three prisoners brought to him, fine looking men, and richly dressed in ornamented clothing and gold, said to be the children of Artayctes and Sandauce, sister to Xerxes. As soon as the prophet Euphrantides saw them, and observed that at the same time the fire blazed out from the offerings with a more than ordinary flame, and a man sneezed on the right, which was an intimation of a fortunate event, he took Themistocles by the hand, and bade him consecrate the three young men for sacrifice, and offer them up with prayers for victory to Bacchus the Devourer; so should the Greeks not only save themselves, but also obtain victory. Themistocles was much disturbed at this strange and terrible prophecy, but the common people, who in any difficult crisis and great exigency ever look for relief rather to strange and extravagant than to reasonable means, calling upon Bacchus with one voice, led the captives to the altar, and compelled the execution of the sacrifice as the prophet had commanded. This is reported by Phanias the Lesbian, a philosopher well read in history.

Plutarch is likely bullshitting here, but not in a morally disapproving way. The Apprentice provides a far more reliable guide to the decision-making norms and general ethos of the American world-picture, and it’s even morally superior to Plutarch. It cannot be compared favorably to The Price is Right, however.


I’ve long held that, contrary to everyone’s naysaying, TV is quite possibly better now than it ever has been.

As for the classics—wasn’t part of the rationale of a classical education that the classical literature taught you everything you needed to know to run a world empire?  And thus could help produce an elite knowledgable in worldly affairs?  And isn’t that actually nonsense, so we don’t really bother with it anymore? 

And why on earth not just skip Plutarch altogether and go straight to Shakespeare? He seems to have picked out the best stories for us and redone them in English.

By Adam Kotsko on 08/14/05 at 07:56 PM | Permanent link to this comment

There’s so much TV that it’s hard to say overall, but certainly there are many programs now that considerably outshine anything that’s come before. The Adult Swim lineup (most of it) comes to mind.

By Jonathan on 08/14/05 at 08:21 PM | Permanent link to this comment

For those with access: the EBSCO link. It’s also available on the Expanded Academic ASAP (or whatever it’s called) but I don’t think there’s a permalink.

I have nothing to say about the substance of either the review or the book, lacking as I do empirical data on decision-making aptitude over time. Perhaps some sort of standardized test could be devised.

By eb on 08/14/05 at 10:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

(This may in fact not be true, but you get the point.)

well, that about sums up the humanities for me.

By on 08/15/05 at 03:51 AM | Permanent link to this comment

If the mathematicians are right, you have trouble with sums. Worth considering.

By Jonathan on 08/15/05 at 10:10 AM | Permanent link to this comment

A point Jonathan makes about international comparisons in math testing (the TIMSS and PISA studies) is incorrect. The implication is that students in other countries who don’t perform well in math are phased out before the tests are given, and so the national samples aren’t comparable. A few things:

1. The countries included in the studies are developed nations, mostly Europe and Asia. Unlike the SAT test, which has a selection bias, the samples are drawn randomly by each nation, and the sample must fairly represent all schoolchildren in the country, not just those doing strong academics. The officials cannot cherry-pick from math classes alone.

2. The characterization of US public schooling as democratic suggests that all students stay in school through high school. In fact, about one-third of students never get a high school diploma, and the number is rising. So, there may actually be a skewing upward in the US sample.

3. On the subject of tv shows: Johnson argues that some tv shows have a degree of sophistication that goes far beyond anything from the past. One might debate that point, especially the moral sophistication of his examples (Seinfeld, reality shows). But he wants to make another point, that is, that tv is “making us smarter.” Does he provide any evidence for this? Only the Flynn effect, which has debatable causes (even Flynn himself doubts it). There is, however, abundant evidence that average tv watching makes you dumber.  For instance, there is a direct correlation between tv watching and student achievement. The more you watch, the worse you perform. Also, children who watch a lot of tv have slower language development. Also, both the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Psychological Association warn about the effects of tv watching. The pediatricians ask that parents allow children under 4 zero hours of screen time, and older children only 1 hour a day.

Johnson’s book has received a lot of attention, unsurprisingly since the entire media world has a stake in promoting his message. But why should educators should take seriously a pop culture critic who has few facts to support his thesis, who’s never stepped inside a classroom (so far as I can tell), and who writes a column in Wired Magazine advising young people to “Stop Reading the Great Books and Start Playing Grand Theft Auto”? With the avalanche of mass culture inundating youth today, do we have to join the chorus in obliterating Plutarch et al?

By on 08/15/05 at 10:13 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Leaving aside for a moment the question of whether a media avalanche is obliterating Plutarch, I want to make the point again that the moral lessons to be drawn from him (or any “Great Book") are not somehow inherently uplifting. Teleologizing up a suspension of the ethical to explain the Themistocles example above would be dangerously anachronistic. It also seems to me to be rather fusty to suggest that Seinfeld was an immoral television show. Along with many others, it didn’t advocate necromancy. Buffy, in fact, took a very strong anti-necromantic stand.

Johnson may have been a TA at Columbia, where he was a graduate student in their English Dept., but I’m not sure about this. The Wired title seems deliberately hyperbolic. Johnson seems more to be suggesting that mass media entertainment is not simply mind-deadening, and it is becoming less so with time. Another point is that you’re just completely throwing sand against the wind here. A better tactic is to study and appropriate, because these things are not going away.

I’ve read over the PISA study, and it does seem to use random selection as much as possible. Affluent U.S. students do, of course, much better on the test than others, reflecting the traditional inequalities in the educational system. If the test were drawn only from the affluent class, the U.S. would have scored at least in the average range. So the main conclusion, hardly surprising, is that other industrialized countries have more equality of opportunity. Media is tangential here.

By Jonathan on 08/15/05 at 11:09 AM | Permanent link to this comment


My point wasn’t that Seinfeld is immoral or that Plutarch provides morally-uplifting lessons. It was that Plutarch has much more moral complexity than “The Apprentice” or other reality shows. It also might help with the deplorable state of historical knowledge among young adults.

If Johnson’s point were only that mass media isn’t as mind-deadening as critics from Lynne Cheney to Hilary Clinton suggest, then few would object. But that wouldn’t grab the attention of talk shows. Johnson actually says that popular culture is making us smarter. He goes from a few examples of good tv shows and video games to higher IQ scores in the population. He explicitly affirms causality. He also avoids the numerous surveys and studies that show dismal levels of knowledge in areas of history, civics, science, geography, and high culture, and skills shortages in reading, writing, and math.

You’re right, though. This is throwing sand into the wind. There is no stopping the media world. Two years ago, video games were a $7 billion a year industry. Last year they hit $12 billion.

By on 08/15/05 at 12:12 PM | Permanent link to this comment

About video games, I have had an Atari 2600, Atari 5200, Commodore 64, Amiga 500, and then at least four PC-type computers, on which I’ve played innumerable games. The ones I was most interested between the ages of 12-15 or so were the Infocom text adventures. These were highly literate and often mind-bendingly difficult. The role-playing graphical adventures, while not as demanding, require considerable patience, mastery of abstract and complex systems, and resource management. Turn-based or real-time strategic games are famously complex. You can’t spend any time with these things and fail to realize that they require considerable mental exercise. Even the twitchy first-person shooters have elaborate world-creation mechanisms supplied with them. A game like Rhem 2 is considerably more difficult than the Analytic section of the GRE, which, by the way, measures almost exclusively your familiarity with game-like problems.

Though I have now made at least two posts about Johnson’s book, I still have not read it. The causality arguments as described to me do sound dubious, but I’ll wait until I’ve read the book before further comment.

I’d just describe the moral complexity of The Apprentice as different. Viewed critically, it is unusually revealing.

By Jonathan on 08/15/05 at 01:15 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Again, Jonathan, there is a big difference between the “ingredients,” so to speak, of an activity and the learning outcomes. Back in the 1960s, when television sets were in every home, many predicted that the language-dense medium would spark faster language development among young watchers. The opposite turned out to be the case. When scientific evidence appears of video-game users having greater cognitive development that non-game users, all other things being equal, then we can make the case. What bothers me is the swift changes in youth habits (and in the K-12 classroom) before the evidence is in.

What we do know is that basic math, writing, and reading skills are, at best, flat, despite the fact that the US spends more on education per student than just about nation in the world. And despite the fact that we’re among the biggest gamers. And despite the fact that boys play games at twice the rate of girls, while girls are routing boys in humanities subjects and fast catching up to boys in math and science.

By on 08/15/05 at 01:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Anyone who doesn’t think that video games at least can require intelligence should play nethack for a few days.

Playing lots of games, or writing excessively in your “blog diary”, may leave you little time for study, and might in that respect foster ignorance, but it surely doesn’t reduce your intelligence.

By ben wolfson on 08/15/05 at 02:04 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Of course, Jonathan, “The Apprentice” has moral complexity if you understand it critically.  But you learn to understand it critically—or at least one way to learn to understand it critically—by reading.  Plutarch.  Shakespeare.  Dostoevsky.  Or to go more contemporary:  DeLillo, Morrison, Roth.  These works furnish a critical vocabulary for thinking about ethics, and of course other disciplines (philosophy, history, for starters) can do so as well.  I know that Mark Bauerlein is not a fan of cultural studies, but his argument here is not that one cannot find moral complexity in pop culture.  His point is that there’s no evidence that immersing oneself in mass culture will provide the critical thinking skills that one needs to find it.

By on 08/17/05 at 11:55 AM | Permanent link to this comment

People watch the Apprentice and Survivor because they want to. Office politics is universal and pretty unavoidable.  People find it interesting to watch it on TV.

Office politics isn’t something books generally represent very well. It is hard to depict that many people distinctly with just words.

It also is important to note that Steven Johnson’s point is not that video games and reality shows are something worth understanding critically. He isn’t doing cultural studies. Johnson admits that the storylines of video games and reality shows are shallow and ridiculous.  His point is only that video games and reality shows are cognatively challenging.

By on 08/17/05 at 02:21 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m a literature Ph.D. who now works in the software industry. My colleagues are generally *very* smart. Yet in the 10 years or so I’ve spent in this industry, I’ve never met anyone who has any ability to read literature (beyond Tom Clancy) or history. STAR WARS counts as great cinema.

Yes, recent TV shows are cognitively more complex than, oh, The Mary Tyler Moore Show. And their particular form of complexity, with its emphasis on self-referentiality, or endless circular references within a very (culturally and historically) small space, has its costs, too: the loss of a certain kind of complexity.

By on 08/20/05 at 03:54 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Folks, I’m enjoying this discussion, and I confess that I haven’t been able to find a copy of Mark’s review yet (perhaps you can send it to me, Mark?) But I was pretty blown away by the quote that Jonathan cited in the initial post here: “If we prize decision-making skills, a few months with Plutarch’s heroes are worth a lifetime of The Apprentice (which Johnson compares to The Price is Right and judges ‘an intellectual masterpiece’).”

Here is the original quote: “The Apprentice may note be the smartest show in the history of television, but it nonetheless forces you to think while you watch it, to work through the social logic of the universe it creates on the screen. And compared with The Price Is Right or Webster, it’s an intellectual masterpiece.”

Now, I’m going to assume that Mark didn’t deliberately manipulate the quote to serve his purposes in the review, which would be the kind of sleight-of-hand you’d expect from the film studios, repackaging “this is a spectacular piece of crap” as “spectacular!” But that only leaves me with one option, which is that Mark doesn’t read very well. So let me spell it out for him. When someone says, “I’m not a very good basketball player, but compared to my grandmother, I’m Michael Jordan,” it is not correct to say that the speaker considers himself to be as good a basketball player as Michael Jordan. The primary point, in fact, is that his grandmother is a particularly *bad* basketball player.

And that, in fact, is the gist of the argument of Everything Bad: it’s not that today’s pop culture is Plutarch, it’s that today’s popular culture is more cognitively challenging than what we were imbibing thirty years ago, which was decidedly not Plutarch. I could have subtitled the book: “How today’s popular culture is actually making us smarter, but not as smart as we would be if we were all reading Plutarch” and the argument would have been the same. I’m talking about a trend, not absolutes.

As for the evidence: I say explicitly in the book that the Flynn effect connection to the pop culture is purely conjecture, but it is at least proof that where “fluid intelligence” skills are concerned, we are getting smarter as a culture, not dumber. As for the other international educational datapoints, I’m with Jonathan entirely: when you control for child poverty and immigration, we don’t look nearly as bad as a country, and the trend here on almost all fronts is positive over the past ten years. Mark’s statement that basic math and reading skills are “at best flat” is an outright falsehood. Math scores nationally by almost any measure are the highest they have been in 30 years.

Finally, I did indeed teach as a TA for a year or two during my Columbia years, and also as an undergrad at Brown. But I taught four or five undergrad classes (including the dreaded Logic And Rhetoric) at Columbia and have taught grad seminars for the past five years at NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program, including a seminar on games that was in fact mentioned in the book…

By Steven Johnson on 08/26/05 at 11:20 PM | Permanent link to this comment

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