The following is a rough transcript which has not been revised by The Jim Rutt Show or by Simon DeDeo. Please check with us before using any quotations from this transcript. Thank you.
Jim: Today’s guest is Simon DeDeo. Simon is assistant professor at Carnegie-Mellon University in the Department of Social and Decision Science where he directs the laboratory for social minds. He’s also on the external faculty at the Santa Fe Institute. Today’s episode is a new format we’re calling currents where we’re going to take an event out in the world that’s relatively current and we’re going to have an open-ended conversation from it that will maybe generate its own currents. We’ll also get it up in a couple of days so it’ll be current as well, so this is current cute.
Jim: The item in the news or the current event world we want to talk about is actually something I picked out of Simon’s very interesting tweet stream … always worth following. Follow Simon on Twitter. We’ll have a link to his Twitter account on our episode page … where he had some reactions to the recent passage by the Oxford Student Union of a quite strong statement upping the ante with respect to college student opposition to speech they find … I don’t know what’s the word. Hateful, I think they used in their proclamation. Hate speech, et cetera. Simon, what do you think about this and what does it all mean?
Simon: Thanks, Jim. Yeah. This is a phenomenon that is increasingly common. It’s something that I think most faculty have noticed in their careers teaching in the last 10 years or so, which is a bit of an inversion from the tradition we’re usually pretty familiar with, which is students protesting against police authority, students protesting against university authority and, in particular, protesting against the constraints of the university or the constraints of the government. The Oxford Student Union motion that was passed was I think, for somebody who went to university in the 1990s, was sort of a mirror world. That union’s motion said, first of all, this is a resolution on hate speech. It’s a demand that the university consider censoring, preventing the assignment of philosophical texts that would be deemed illegal under British law and illegal because they promote denigration or hatred of a protected group.
Simon: The student union’s motion said, “A, we think the laws at the governmental level should be stronger, that there should in fact be stricter laws against what one is permitted to say.” In the meantime, whether or not those laws are made stricter to prevent a wider range of speech, Oxford University should take the lead in preemptively preventing certain texts from being discussed. One thing that maybe might strike as particularly is that the texts the students are talking about are not let’s say Mein Kampf. They’re not texts that we might consider extraordinarily offensive. In the particular case they raised was a philosophical article about eugenics and in particular the question of whether one should select embryos in order to avoid a child with disabilities. There’s a lot of strangeness there I think for those of us joining the culture from an earlier stage of evolution.
Jim: Yeah. Let me jump in there a little bit. I went to college university a full generation before you. I showed up in Cambridge Massachusetts in 1971.
Simon: Oh, right.
Jim: The boomers were just giving the finger to the GI Joe generation and the silence and we were basically just grabbing freedom. We were still very much in the shadow of the famous Berkeley Free Speech Movement where it was all about what should we be able to say on campus. Anything we goddamn well please. You don’t like it? Fuck you, right? Further, when I talk to people who’ve gone to university just a little before me, used to be the university acted in loco parentis.
Jim: They, for instance, you couldn’t bring your girlfriends up to your dorm room literally after 6:00 at night. Apparently it was true till about 1967, five years before I showed up, four years before I showed up. By the time I got there, hey, if you were clever enough to talk your girlfriend into cohabitating in your dorm room, no one’s going to say a word. We even had an account at a local liquor store where we could order hooch and have it delivered to the front desk so it was all about maximizing personal freedom. Again, from my generation even more probably than yours, this kind of the people want to legislate a police state, that’s very odd.
Jim: The other thing I wanted to underline, which you mentioned in passing but I think distinguishes this particular act from other previous acts say at US universities, this was not about censoring an outside speaker or dissuading, reversing an invitation of an outside speaker that people might have thought was problematic in that horrible, passive aggressive term used by people on campus these days, but rather these were about assigned works by professors in class and they were specifically calling or overruling the British law with respect to academic freedom. This was an even stronger reach than any of these controversies in the States.
Simon: Yeah. This is interesting, Jim. We are different generations on this so one of the things that I think we’re really used to is, as students, one of our main goals is to offend whoever came before so I’m cusp of gen-X millennial so what I say online is like, “Okay, boomer.” This battle that we’re used to over the course of, I don’t know, postwar culture, who knows when this started or when it became explicit. It isn’t just, “Oh, the boomers did this and everyone quit.” I think if that has changed, that’s a much larger shift in how the culture works. It isn’t just there is a boomer tradition that’s now been superseded but there is a generational dynamic that maybe has shifted. Part of what I was trying to figure out was is this really a shift because, to put it another way, there’s no lack of students, young people yelling at the older generation for how they fucked up the world, right?
Simon: The Oxford resolution was a puzzle to me in a lot of ways because on the one hand it’s a shift but if it really is a true shift towards a pro-authoritarian stance where the students are basically inviting the government to intervene at Oxford, that’s much larger than one generation having different norms than the previous one. It’s almost like a shift in the metarule for things.
Simon: One of the things I wanted to do is maybe think a little bit more about this dynamic that we’re seeing. There are some standard explanations sitting out there, standard stories sitting out there. One that’s become quite popular, it’s been popularized by Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff which is the coddled mind thesis. This says, “Look, why is this generation intervening in favor of an authoritarian control in a way that we perhaps haven’t seen before, at least in the general student population?” The coddled mind thesis says this generation is unique in that they have been isolated from challenge in life, that they have been protected by helicopter parents from experiencing any kind of difficult, shielded from it. They’ve been taught to see adversity and unpleasant experiences as damaging as opposed to opportunities for growth and they’ve been taught that even the very encountering of an idea that one finds offensive is itself a psychological harm. It’s some form of trauma. That’s the coddled mind thesis.
Simon: I don’t particularly buy that thesis. I think it’s one that resonates with … The piece first came out in The Atlantic. It resonates with The Atlantic Monthly readership, in part because I think The Atlantic Monthly readership is often indeed composed of the parents exactly like that. That said, I’m not sure that it’s representative of the student population, first of all. The racial and sexual diversity of universities has gone up under any standard account. The number of students who have actually been exposed to traumatic things has risen as opposed to declined. The students I went to school with by and large were I would say in some sense more protected than the ones today. It doesn’t quite fit that … There’s something missing there. It can neither explain why it’s happening, I would say, and even if it could, it couldn’t explain why now as opposed to before. I think there’s something missing from that story, at least. It’s a popular story.
Simon: There’s a second thesis which different from The Atlantic Monthly coddled mind thesis and that’s one, who knows where it came from. One prominent person, until he disappeared to Russia, was Jordan Peterson who explains this not as a psychological story about early childhood and being forced to wear a bicycle helmet and that kind of thing. Peterson talks about this moment as an ideological one. The students behind these movements, or rather motions, the reason the Oxford Student Union called for the banning of certain texts in the classroom is not psychological but rather because they subscribe to a certain ideology and what that ideology is, I think Peterson calls it cultural Marxism. You might call it … I was reading a recent book on this by a left wing academic who says, “Maybe the right term is postmodern neo-Marxism.” Who knows.
Simon: The ideological explanation I think is also a bit weak and one reason is that no one’s really been able to pin down exactly what that ideology is. There is a communist ideology in as much as there was the Communist Party of the USA sharing [inaudible 00:11:53] from Soviet HQ. If it’s being ideologically driven, it’s a really covert protean self-contradictory one and at some point you want to say, “Well, to what extent is it really an ideology if half of the ideology contradicts the other half or half of what people are saying is there … Is it Marx? Is it postmodern? Is it cultural, economic, materialist? Who knows?” In some sense, yes, they’re banning things because they have ideas and the ideas cause them to ban things because that’s usually how ideas work but I’m just not buying the thesis that there is a set of ideas coherent, written down somewhere, at least identifiable that all of these motions, protests have in common. The ideological thesis I think fails just as much as the coddled mind thesis.
Jim: Let me respond a little bit to that, the ideological one. Some of my more thoughtful conservative friends, and I do pride myself on having friends all across the political spectrum even though that is considered to be unfashionable these days.
Simon: We all love you. Yes.
Jim: I’m such a lovable character.
Simon: You are. Yeah.
Jim: The label they would put on it, again, the most thoughtful of them, they would call the ideology postmodernist critical theory. They don’t use a seemingly built-in contradictory label like neo-Marxist or cultural Marxism. They basically focus specifically at critical theory. There’s an identifiable body of work in sociology, anthropology, law and the humanities that’s labeled critical theory. I think that is perhaps got a little bit better argument for it but let’s pass on that argument and let’s go on to why I reached out to you and wanted to get you on the show.
Jim: Simon put forth in his tweet storm, that tweet hurricane around the tweet storm, an idea of an alternative explanation that actually is quite interesting, called the cocktail party model. Why don’t you roll that out for us?
Simon: Jim, yeah. To get a hurricane, I think you need an inversion layer. What I wanted to do is take seriously the possibility that these motions, protests and, again, we have the Oxford Student Union as the example to hand. It’s unusual in a certain way. It’s unusual, for example, that Britain does not have the free speech laws that we do in the States. It’s not as baked-in as for us and so talking about prior restraint by the government in Britain is not a nonstarter as it is here in the US.
Simon: What I wanted to do is think about the possibility that these students are actually taking the university seriously. They’re taking a model of education that they’ve learned, and in particular I would say they’ve learned in elite circles so this is a story about what’s happening let’s say at Overland or Amherst, Oxford, Harvard, wherever, as opposed to University of Kentucky, Indiana University [inaudible 00:15:15]. The Oxonians here are taking a model of education that Oxford has been running for 100 years, who knows, maybe all the way back to the foundation of the college as a tutorial system, has been taking that model and literally just taking it seriously. In some sense, they are actually the most conformist of the students that we have to hand. They’re in some sense revealing the contradictions of a certain story about what it means to learn.
Simon: That model, I call it the cocktail party model. The cocktail party model of education, if you spent time in a place like Oxford, so that would exclude for example your education, Jim, at MIT so not a tech school model, not an engineering school model, not the Moscow State model but the elite anglosphere ivy-covered buildings model. This is a story about when you do when you go to seminar. The primary place you learn is, at least according to this model, not in a lecture hall, not in a top-down communication model, not in the Yoda guru model. This is a model of education where you come into a room, you sit around a table and you talk and that’s an insufficient level of definition.
Simon: The way I understood the Oxford seminar model, I keep saying Oxford just because we happen to have [inaudible 00:16:51] to hand, is an ethic of hospitality meaning what it means to be in seminar is understood roughly along the lines of what it means to go to a cocktail party. You’re learning the rules, the boundaries, the guardrails here for what is right behavior, what’s wrong behavior, what it means to do well, what it means to do poorly. Those norms are imported in part from the drawing room, maybe the 18th century, 19th century drawing room.
Simon: What does this mean? It means, for example, when you go to the seminar the professor is the host. The students are the guests. I don’t know what your dinner parties are like, Jim, but when I throw a dinner party the host has certain obligations. You’re not a dictator at a dinner party. The host is not telling people what to do. They create an environment in which the guests can enjoy themselves in a certain structured way. The guests themselves have reciprocal obligations. The host is some kind of partly like a Socratic midwife. We’re trying to draw the guests out. The guests talk amongst themselves. The host’s interventions are minimal. The ideal interactions are ones of enlightened dynamic conversation.
Simon: Having experienced this myself, in some sense this is something you have to learn. You’re taught if you go to a certain kind of fancy high school you learn it when you’re 13, 14. If you come to an elite university from a more demotic background, you learn it on the job. Often freshman year you’ll have seminar that teaches you the law of seminar without explicitly teaching you the law of seminar. That’s the cocktail party model. It’s a bit, if I were to give you a taxonomy and a list of rules, it’d be a bit tricky.
Simon: One way I thought about it was many of our educational practices or our theories of what it means to learn go all the way back to Plato. The part of Plato that teaches us the cocktail party model is probably the opening first half of Plato’s Symposium, which is a dinner party that in many ways is a model for the optimal seminar, the optimal tutorial. What happens, people come. They’re pretty orderly. They drink but not too much. You probably don’t drink anymore at the seminar table but certainly an elite university will have cocktail hour at some point, drink sharing. You don’t get roaring drunk but there’s a conviviality to it. You go around the table. You share your ideas. People respect each other, even when they disagree. There’s Socrates in this case as the special guest. He’s going to show up and ruin everything in the second half of the Symposium but that first half, when I read it recently, I thought, “Christ, that’s what I was taught to do.”
Simon: If we take that cocktail party model and say, “All right, that’s what we were doing in let’s say Cambridge of Oxford in 1980 or 1990 or even 2000,” what happens when we open the university up? The cocktail party, and by calling it the cocktail party I draw attention to the idea that this is a bit of a frou-frou fussy event.
Jim: Yeah, it’s kind of a white people thing, right?
Simon: Yeah. It’s like remember that website Stuff White People Like? Stuff white people like, Amherst art history seminar. That’s awesome.
Jim: Yeah, yeah.
Simon: Yeah. Your Patagonia jacket, your LL Bean backpack. That’s, at least maybe you can say, from the symposium that has devolved over the next whatever 2,500 years into a sort of refined decorous way to talk. It’s not entirely decorous. People disagree but just as a good dinner party has an argument, has a drama to it, so can the cocktail party. At some point, these students are sitting there and they’re saying, “Look, I read John Stuart Mill. I’m a good enlightened liberal. Race doesn’t matter. Gender doesn’t matter. Disability doesn’t matter. Everybody is at the cocktail party now.” You now encounter very serious tension because one of the basic rules of the cocktail party is don’t be offensive.
Simon: You can gossip about people who aren’t there. It’s a bit tacky but you can do it. It’s sufficiently elevated but cocktail party model says you shouldn’t make personal remarks about the seminar leader. You can’t be like, “You know, it’s really interesting we’re reading Plato on erotic love between the young and the old and I happened to notice, prof, your wife is really young.” That’s a rude moment. That’s off limits. Hey, you might say, “Shit, that’s rough and tumble. Let’s learn, man. Are you some kind of wimp? You can’t handle that?” It’s outside the bounds, right? If you do that, you’re no longer doing cocktail party. You might be doing something else. My guess is that if you do that at, whatever, Amherst, you’re done. You’re not going to get a good [inaudible 00:22:09]. At the very least, you’re not going to get invited back and you might get [inaudible 00:22:11].
Simon: Let’s take the Oxford Student Union example with, they suggested a text that might be banned is this text, I would say it’s the genesis text. I don’t like it. I don’t agree with it but we can talk about that later. This is a text that says basically should we abort babies who will turn out to be disabled, let’s say in a wheelchair? You can’t have that conversation. That’s a really awkward conversation to have in the cocktail party model if somebody in the seminar room is in a wheelchair. It’s just rude.
Simon: I’m not saying it can’t be discussed. I’m just saying it can’t be discussed in that model. If you wanted to do that, I would say [inaudible 00:22:53] broken. We didn’t notice this, I think. Maybe we did. I’m sure people did but people notice [inaudible 00:23:00]. This is just on Twitter. If the seminar was all male, Oxford seminar on the Odyssey in the 19th century, you could say all sorts of stuff. The men around the table could say all sorts of stuff that if there were women in the room, they would feel embarrassed to say. They wouldn’t be able to say it because that’s just not decorous in that environment.
Simon: Let’s just say this, right? What if the speech codes, the protests, these sorts of things are not actually a secret radical sell of the Foucault [Internationale 00:23:35]. What if this is actually the best students and all they’re doing is saying, “Look, we’re trying to square a story about how to learn that you taught us to idolize with another thing you taught us to idolize, which is sort of a let’s say liberal [inaudible 00:23:50],” and there’s some clash there. That’s a different way to understand why ban this next. Not because the person in the wheelchair has led a coddled and easy life. That’s the high theory and it’s bullshit. [inaudible 00:24:04]. Not because I subscribe to a really extensive theory about disability and consciousness or whatever but simply because it just doesn’t feel like … It kind of ruins the play.
Jim: Call it the hospitality filter, right?
Simon: Exactly. Inhospitable.
Jim: In fact, it ties back to in some kind of almost linguistic way to the idea of a hostile environment. It’s not hospitable, right?
Simon: Yes. Yeah. They … Jim, please cut me off.
Jim: That’s an interesting idea. Essentially what you’re saying is that these students are taking the traditions of hospitality and the cocktail party or maybe even the dinner party might actually be a little closer but some form of high hospitality as a true norm and they’re saying that if you now assume that we’re going to include a much broader group of people, our definition of hospitality has to change.
Simon: Yes. That’s great, Jim. I like this. One question is do we want the ethic of hospitality to be the thing beneath an educational experience, right?
Jim: Yeah. It’s interesting. It may be that it breaks under that. It may put too many constraints. For instance, and I suspect we are under the influence to a degree of some postmodernist theory here because I don’t imagine anyone’s going to call the police on my dinner party because I violated some rule of hospitality. The idea of making this a general will kind of legally-enforced doctrine is beyond hospitality is a long shot so there is some ideology there. Maybe at one level I like the fact that you floated this idea, because it explains actually a lot. It also explains, as you mentioned in the tweet storm, that this is typically a phenomena of elite universities and, as you said, not Eastern Kentucky or Prince George’s County Community College or any of those places that we know and love actually but it’s of the elite.
Jim: If you think about this, there are other alternatives. You mentioned at MIT, where I went, you don’t have this cocktail party ethos at all. It’s a battle of the wills and the wits and let the fastest win. Let the chips fall where they may. I think I also mentioned when I was chatting to you once a company I was on the board of. All the software engineers, 17 of them, 22 of them, I don’t know how many of them, every one of them was a physicist from Moscow and I think about 90% of them were of Jewish ethnic background and these guys, they loved to just get down to it. They would be cursing each other’s mothers and their ancestries in an argument about some technical issue and at the end of it, though, they were all slapping each other’s backs and going outside and smoking some deadly cigarettes.
Jim: Maybe there’s another model that is actually better. Truthfully at SFI, you and I both spent a lot of time at the Santa Fe Institute, there’s an awful lot of intellectual sword fighting there as well and probably not a whole lot of the hospitality model. Maybe the hospitality model is no longer functional when you have to accommodate some vast array of people and their potential sensitivities.
Simon: It’s great, Jim. Let’s see. Maybe this is too critical theory postmodern for you, Jim, but I love SFI. I’m not sure when someone whips their sword out of their pants it’s always the greatest conversation. We have other models. If I were going to do the same cultural theory move on the Moscow State model, this is the military barracks model. This is we’re going to solve problems through a model of fair fighting, let’s say. You can toss a bunch of insults. There’s always boundaries and rules here. Maybe the rule in Moscow State with don’t cry, right?
Simon: I’m not sure … I don’t think you’re saying this but to be clear, there’s no way outside of a culture. There’s no way to have the view from nowhere seminar. There are a set of norms that guide what are the optimal or correct things to do, what it needs to succeed, what it means to have a good throw-down fight in the cafeteria.
Simon: One of my Twitter friends, we knew each other from the Turing Institute back in London. He’s now at NYU, Josh. Josh is quite up front about the fact that he made it in academia without an elite background, working class family. He’s talked really eloquently about that. I think I’m attributing this correctly to Josh. I’m [inaudible 00:29:23] comments about it so I got to be careful but I would like to talk about the boxing ring metaphor, the sparring match metaphor. Another one is the college debate metaphor. I never liked college debate, Jim. It never quite made sense to me but college debate metaphor, there are rules here to debate that are very different. They’re not rules, for example, of insight I would say or even necessarily learning. You can learn from watching a debate but the participants, in some sense you win in a debate if you learn the least, if your position changes the least over the course of it.
Simon: If we think, okay, maybe you bought this, Jim, which is great. I’m thrilled. Maybe you bought that, okay, this is the explanation about why we are having this rather unusual moment where students are protesting in favor of greater restriction on what’s happening, then we say, “Okay, what’s next? Do we have other models for how people can talk to each other in an open way, in a way that they learn, in a way that they develop their let’s say dialectical abilities, meaning their abilities to talk to each other, develop their ideas over the course of time?” That’s a great question. That’s a really fun question.
Jim: An important question, right? If elite universities are molding the minds of the leaders of the future, then we need to make sure we’re picking a metaphor and of course these are all metaphors, cocktail party, a boxing ring. They’re all metaphors. We’re not actually enacting these things and so it’s important. It’s got high stakes. When I said I bought your model, I think it’s a fairly reasonable explanation that fits the facts as well or better than any of the alternatives. That doesn’t mean I agree with the outcome, by any means. I was like, “Fuck, kids calling the cops on their professor for including a philosophy paper in a class? That’s fucking nuts.” I could see where we got to via your analysis but personally it may be just okay boomer time here. I’d be damn pissed off if my kids were paying $300,000 to get educated like that.
Jim: A different alternative, equally serious, maybe more serious, is University of Chicago. You can’t get anymore formal, serious about the intellectual content and yet with very polite forms of discourse. They have their own whole style of doing seminars and yet rigorous open free speech. Maybe that’s a better alternative.
Simon: Let’s raise the stakes here a little bit, Jim. You mentioned your chain-smoking Moscow physicists were Jewish. Your Chicago, to me it always seemed to MIT for the humanities in the sense that there was, when I was there, I was a postdoc there for a while and looking at how undergraduates dealt with the world they were in was very different from let’s say Harvard or Cambridge and I wonder if that’s in part Chicago had less of the, let’s just say it, the Episcopalian antisemitism that I’ve always associated with the Harvard model and the British model more generally, that certain ways of talking were just a little too Jewish.
Simon: I’m reminded, Jim, I don’t know if you remember this, the great scene in Annie Hall where Woody Allen’s character goes to Annie Hall’s house and it’s very waspy like, “Oh, Jim was at the boat basin today. Yeah, it was great. Yeah. I really scrubbed some boats for a while.” Then they have the split screen with Woody Allen’s, Alvy I guess is the name of the character, Alvy’s Brooklyn family and they’re yelling over each other and it’s crass from the point of view of the Episcopalian model but it’s a lot more fun.
Jim: It’s authentic, right? It’s an authentic cultural way, right?
Simon: What is authenticity? If we’re really getting down to it, what is authenticity?
Jim: I guess having a pole up your ass and your nose in the air is authentic, right, if that’s who you are?
Simon: I don’t know, Jim. Obviously elite universities do a couple things, right? They transmit knowledge. They’re sources of innovation. In the US, the elite universities are, yeah, sources of innovation but a hell of a lot of state universities are as well. You can win a Nobel Prize if you go to Michigan State. It’s really hard to get a job with Merrill Lynch. You’re going to be in the back room for many, many years if you come out of Michigan State. What’s Oxford meant to be doing? Other than what Indiana is doing, which is let’s read some books and learn some stuff. Let’s discover some new facts about the universe and new ways to see it.
Simon: One of the reasons people send their kids to Harvard is so that they act like kids that went to Harvard. I hate to say it, Jim, one of the reasons people pay a lot of … This is obvious … you’ll pay a lot of money to go to Harvard is because it gives you the right social college. You’re good at cocktail parties. I think Harvard would change pretty quickly if the way you got a job at Merrill Lynch was acting like you’re in a working class Brooklyn dinner party. I think it would change. Maybe see a little bit. I haven’t actually seen how seminars run at Stanford. It’s pretty clear that Stanford is the new model for elite education. Harvard is starting to look like Disneyland West for the anglosphere.
Simon: What is the next thing? Physics is an easy one because it’s … I hate to say it and I sound like Jordan Peterson. It’s kind of right or wrong. You divided by zero or you didn’t. The bridge fell down or it didn’t. That’s not the only kind of knowledge. Other kinds of knowledge are more discursive. They’re more reflective. They require you to situate yourself in that classroom as a person with a past that’s very different. You go to a class in physics, it doesn’t really matter how the electron makes you feel but it actually does matter how Aristotle makes you feel, not because your feelings are really important but because Aristotle is trying to affect how you feel. A physics class doesn’t really … You can learn physics without having profound feelings about the nature of the space-time manifold or rather we can have a diversity of feelings about the space-time manifold.
Jim: I was going to say, what a sacrilege, right?
Simon: I know. Right, right. [inaudible 00:36:23] doesn’t believe in [inaudible 00:36:25]. It’s terrible. It’s a horrible thing. If you want to teach Aristotle, you have to have some way of dealing with the fact that Aristotle is trying to change you as a person, that Balzac is trying to change you as a person or Foucault is trying to change you as a person, perhaps how you read a text or how you see the world around you. We can’t get rid of discussion at all.
Jim: Certainly not in the humanities and the social sciences. It would be absurd.
Simon: Exactly and let’s go all the way back as a fundamentalist for the Platonic tradition. Maybe we go back and we look, what are the other models sitting there in the dialogs, for example? What are the other ways that people think about it? Here’s one that you can’t do, which is the Phaedrus which is Socrates shows up and flirts with a young guy, although Oxford does do that as well. A friend of mine once said that the benefits of being a classics professor at Oxford include a great library and a little light pederasty. Phaedrus out, good reason, done. Can’t do that. Okay. Symposium doesn’t work. For these very reasons, it conflicts with a certain kind of thing that showed up in Johnston or whoever you want to blame for it.
Simon: I don’t know. Maybe we all download to the matrix and we take on the identity we want. That still doesn’t work, Jim, because we are sitting here as people. We’re sitting here as people with pasts. If you don’t understand Aristotle from the point of view of a person with a past, you don’t understand it. I don’t know. I’m racking my brain, what else we have in the … I don’t know. We have the Parmenides. The Parmenides is like an old guy surrounded by people who basically are asking him to demonstrate things. We have the Meno. Okay, we can’t do the Meno. The Meno involves enslaving someone. That’s out.
Simon: I don’t know. Maybe, Jim, I guess what you’re saying is we should really find more cultural theory of education. That’s your radical left wing position at the end of it is maybe we actually, instead of fighting something, we should realize that it’s telling us that there’s a paradox sitting in there that the students have revealed to us. They’ve revealed it to us, I think in part, like a place like Oxford by opening up to working class students, by opening up to non-white students. They’re opening up to women. It took them ages, right? Oxford, that’s one tensions reveal. In the US, enormous numbers of East Asian students now not just coming to the US to do machine learning but also to acquire a liberal education. I think we should expect to see these tensions. We should expect them to have unusual outcomes and maybe the follow-on from that is that we should expect that new ideas, new cultural practices around education, those are the things we should be looking for. How do you run a seminar differently?
Simon: It’s a first mover problem as well. If you’re let’s say a striving university that’s not as good as Harvard. I don’t know, pick it out of a hat, like Yale. Say you’re Yale and you want to change the seminar. You can’t because if you don’t do the anglosphere model, then you’re not elite anymore. Now who’s going to pay five times the price to go there? There’s an imagination problem maybe. There’s also the fact that, look, people go to universities to look like a university man, as they used to say. Even if we do have better ideas, it could be very hard to get universities, the faculty on board and dare I say it, Jim, the paying customers, the parents and the loan officers on board as well.
Jim: Why don’t we wrap it up there? I think this has been a very interesting excursion. To recap it, I’ll give you a chance to respond to the recap. We see this what seems to us old farts, me a real old fart and Simon a very junior old fart, as somewhat anomalous to what we would expect from college students but, as Simon thinks about it a little bit, he comes up with this hospitality-based cocktail party model which actually does seem to fit the traditions of the seminar room in the elite anglosphere when you cross it with radical diversity. Because it leads to conclusions, at least I would object to and I think Simon sort of objects to at least a little-
Simon: There’s something odd about it, Jim, let’s just say that.
Jim: Yeah, yeah.
Simon: You know what, Jim. I would say it’s problematic. Let’s say it’s problematic.
Jim: That’s a good word. I usually hate that word used in …
Simon: Let’s pull that out of the hat.
Jim: … a passive aggressive way but in this case, I think it actually fits. It’s problematic and so therefore, that highlights your final riff which is what this ought to be seen as, as a flag that the whole concept of how the seminar is conducted in elite universities needs to be rethought.
Simon: Yeah or, Jim, we could just go back to all-male, all-white universities. That would solve it, right?
Jim: That’s boring.
Simon: Exactly, right? A college I know and love, I’ve been educated there partly myself, is Saint John’s College in Santa FE and I would go down there in the summers. Their tutorial system is insane. It’s insanely good and yet there there are tensions. Saint John’s really gets into your head. You read some really intense texts. You read texts about rape and murder. You read the Greek tragedies. Going in at 38, that’s fine. We’re all adults around the table. We have a better sense of things. You put a 17-year-old guy and a 17-year-old young woman in the seminar room and have a discussion about that text, something’s going to go wrong, right? I don’t know. It’s [inaudible 00:42:19].
Jim: Yeah. That’s [inaudible 00:42:21]. This is where Haidt might have something, right?
Simon: Something’s going to go wrong, here’s what I mean by this, Jim. Something’s going to go wrong in the sense that either somebody’s going to say something really offensive, and by offensive I mean cocktail party model violated, right?
Jim: Right, right.
Simon: Or they’re going to self-censor. They’re going to self-censor because the emotions, the backgrounds that students bring in, one as a man, one as a woman, talking about something, they’re pretty immature … all 17-year-olds are throughout time. It’s in the dialog. They’re going to read about let’s say a rape and they’re going to want to talk about this but I just don’t think that a mixed-sex group has the capacity to talk about that under the cocktail party metaphor or under the cocktail party model. There’s a gap there.
Simon: When I was there one of the things that I had a sense of was that students would actually in discussions after class, for example, would segregate by sex and talk these things over. In a funny way, actually, they were reconstituting a cocktail party where some of these offensive ideas could be discussed in single-sex groups. That’s kind of nuts. This was women as well as men. If Saint JOhn’s is the ultimate bible college, except the bible is the dialog, it’s not the Hebrew bible, you could see them actually trying to go backwards in time [inaudible 00:43:45]. I don’t know, Jim. It’s a really fun puzzle for what we do next.
Jim: Some friends of mine would call it a [limital 00:43:54] moment where we know there’s an issue but we don’t know what the solution is and that’s kind of fun.
Simon: I think that’s right. Whenever there’s a … Hegel, right? Thesis, antithesis, synthesis. John Stuart Mill, and I’m using that as a kind of metonym for a certain kind of egalitarian liberalism that we see on Star Trek, the bridge of the Starship Enterprise is a fantasy, an imaginary that I would say arose in part out of a cocktail party conversation that a bunch of guys had in a seminar room. What they didn’t know, perhaps, was that they were developing an idea that one day would blow up that very room that they were creating that idea in and that is always very exciting. Maybe that’s why, Jim, I think I’m a little resistant to these kind of reductive explanations that say, “It’s a bunch of brats,” or, “It’s a bunch of sleeper agents.” Maybe this is something that’s really very interesting for us.
Simon: Our attention, your attention, my attention is drawn to it because there seems to be something off here. Self-censorship seems to be wrong. Maybe what we’re realizing is that whether or not any model requires censorship. I would say secretly it does. There are things you can’t say at Moscow State. Literally there were but even whatever the Brooklyn version of Moscow State was, there are things you can’t say there either. Maybe it’s just the censorship regime that is required by the cocktail party model. Maybe that regime is coming to an end. It’s gotten too much. [inaudible 00:45:31]. Jim, I’ve gone on lots and lots but this is … I don’t know, Jim. I love this. This is very helpful.
Jim: Yeah, this is wonderful. This is a wonderful conversation. I want to thank you, Simon, for another excellent talk on the Jim Rutt Show.
Production services and audio editing by Jared Janes Consulting. Music by Tom Muller modernspacemusic.com.