Feeding the Masses
We all want to end hunger. Gordon Conway’s book One Billion Hungry provides the road map. “Think global, eat local,” the mantra of the sustainable agriculture movement, will not cut it. We need serious new policies in well over a hundred countries to meet this goal. Conway, a professor of international development at Imperial College, London (and, before that, the president of the Rockefeller Foundation and of the Royal Geographical Society), is perhaps the most knowledgeable and distinguished agroecologist of his generation, and in One Billion Hungry he does not mince words. The fact that for more than a century the international community has not acted decisively to end hunger is the most galling failure of the modern era. There is more than enough food in the world; what’s the problem?
The problem is economics. The problem is politics. The problem is markets. Food is produced to make a profit. Food is marketed and sold to make a profit. Households without the means to participate in that for-profit system go hungry. In India more than a quarter of the population, about 300 million people, require access to the public food distribution system. Even in the United States, 46 million people rely on food stamps. As Nobel Prize–winning economist Amartya Sen has reminded us, it is not the amount of food in these societies that determines whether people are hungry, but the nature of their “entitlement” to that food. Worldwide, a... READ THE REST OF THIS ENTRY >>
History for “We the People”
The era when serious historians aspired to write works that also qualified as literature are long, long gone. During the Enlightenment, David Hume and Edward Gibbon wrote prose as grand as any in our language, and brought sophisticated literary techniques to the craft of history writing. Their tradition was carried on by the great historians of the 19th century: Thomas Babington Macaulay, Hippolyte Taine, Francis Parkman, Alexis de Tocqueville, George Bancroft, Jacob Burckhardt, and Thomas Carlyle all composed their epics with an eye to the literary immortality they eventually achieved. Exciting, mellifluous narrative was, to them, no insignificant part of the historian’s craft, and the result is that while many of their ideas are no longer groundbreaking, we continue to read them for their flair, their masterful syntax, and most of all their big-picture perspective.
The 20th century saw a narrowing of focus, an increased specialization and professionalization. Historians, like social scientists, joined university faculties and began to write more for their peers than for the general reader, and—again like social scientists, not to mention literary scholars—to develop an opaque jargon that might almost have been designed to repulse the non-specialist. “Popular” history was often left to nonacademic historians, whose work was enjoyed by readers but looked at askance by the professionals—viz. the academy’s snide disparagement of... READ THE REST OF THIS ENTRY >>
In 2008, David Foster Wallace hanged himself at his home in California. He had emerged on the literary scene in 1987 with his first novel, Broom of the System, but is probably best known for Infinite Jest, published nine years later. The famously hefty novel, with its hundreds of endnotes, rendered America’s relationship with its appetites in an original voice—a new language that was sprawling and obsessive in a way that suited its subject. By the time Wallace died, he had also published three short-story collections, two collections of essays, and a book-length pop-science essay on infinity. Last year, his longtime publisher released The Pale King, the novel he was working on when he died. Wallace accumulated detractors as well as fanboys, but few neglected to acknowledge his outsize talent and uncommon intellect. His impact was such that only four years after his death, we have a biography on our hands—New Yorker staff writer D. T. Max’s Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story.
Biographies this contemporary with their subject are most often written about celebrities, and to the extent Wallace might be classified as one, Every Love Story fills a similar demand. Inquiring minds are nothing new, but for all the appetites Wallace wrangled into Infinite Jest, our collective jones for information has truly come into its own since the novel’s publication 16 years ago, sharpened by unprecedented access to data. While Max’s biography may owe its... READ THE REST OF THIS ENTRY >>
Failure to Lead
In a devastating review of General Tommy Frank’s 2004 autobiography, Andrew J. Bacevich observed that as the United States has become increasingly reliant on its armed forces to maintain its global position, “the quality of senior American military leadership has seldom risen above the mediocre. The troops are ever willing, the technology remarkable, but first-rate generalship has been hard to come by.” This critique from Bacevich, a prominent professor of international relations at Boston University and a former Army officer, caused a firestorm in the U.S. Army—staffers at the Pentagon allegedly handed out copies with the fervor of Soviet dissidents distributing samizdat.
Within a few years relations between field officers and the brass had gotten to a point where open confrontations were occurring at many of the military schools. Whether true or not, a story circulated that students at one war college, most with some two decades of service, were required to submit their questions for screening so that no visiting general might be offended. Treated like adolescents, the students responded by asking variations of “Sir, how did you become such a brilliant and handsome man, and how can I be more like you?”
In a 2007 article in Armed Forces Journal, Army officer Paul Yingling added fuel to the fire, declaring that the “intellectual and moral failures” evident in Iraq “constitute a crisis in American generalship.&... READ THE REST OF THIS ENTRY >>
A Nation of Thinkers
Carlin Romano begins his new book with a provocative thesis: The United States is the most philosophical nation on earth. Romano, a critic at large for The Chronicle of Higher Education and professor of philosophy and humanities at Ursinus College, declares his stance in the first few pages of America the Philosophical: “The surprising little secret of our ardently capitalist, famously materialist, heavily iPodded, iPadded, and iPhoned society is that America in the early 21st century towers as the most philosophical culture in the history of the world, an unprecedented marketplace of truth and argument that far surpasses ancient Greece, Cartesian France, 19th-century Germany, or any other place one can name over the past three millennia.”
How could such a hotbed of philosophy have gained the reputation for being an un-philosophical, indeed downright anti-intellectual culture? Romano’s explanation is that the word “philosophy” has come to be identified, incorrectly, with the work of a small number of Ivy League philosophy professors in the analytic tradition whose research concerns technical matters related to epistemology (i.e., the theory of knowledge)—people such as Willard Van Orman Quine, Donald Davidson, and Wilfrid Sellars, who saw science as the model for good philosophy and regarded logic as their primary instrument.
Outside of this sphere stands another American philosophical tradition, which is less concerned with the... READ THE REST OF THIS ENTRY >>
A Sage’s Advice
I’m sitting beside a tall stack of books by Jerome Kagan, published by Harvard, Yale, Cambridge, Basic Books. This stack doesn’t include Kagan’s papers (nearly 400), or his textbook Psychology: An Introduction, written with Julius Segal, which has gone through at least nine editions.
A professor emeritus at Harvard, Kagan, now 83, began his career at Yale, where his apprenticeship to behavioral researcher Frank Beach required him to masturbate a group of male dogs over several evenings. Eventually he got a day job, assessing children for a longitudinal study of childhood temperament at the Fels Research Institute. He moved to Harvard in 1964 and continued to study children. His research culminated in The Nature of the Child (1984), a developmental study that emphasized the enduring role of temperament. Kagan went on to codirect Harvard’s Mind/Brain/Behavior Interfaculty Initiative, an interdisciplinary program established in 1993 to investigate relationships between the nervous system, human behavior, and mental life.
The themes of Kagan’s books widened accordingly, to include more philosophical and cultural questions. Indeed, Psychology’s Ghosts revisits ideas Kagan advanced in previous books, namely Three Seductive Ideas (1998), An Argument for Mind (2006), and The Three Cultures (2009)—the title of the latter an allusion to C. P. Snow’s influential lecture cautioning against the growing gulf between the sciences... READ THE REST OF THIS ENTRY >>
Guided by Voices
In the Kuwaiti desert in March 2003, before 800 soldiers of the Royal Irish Regiment, British army colonel Tim Collins made a dazzling eve-of-battle speech. With Shakespearean flourishes and the moral fine-tuning of Jehovah, he instructed the troops to “tread lightly” in “the birthplace of Abraham,” though some would kill, others would be killed, and there would be “no time for sorrow.” Iraq’s children would one day acknowledge that the “the light of liberation in their lives was brought by you.” Reporters and their audiences, including President George W. Bush, were electrified. Months later, however, Sam Leith, a writer and former literary editor of The Daily Telegraph, spoke to a high-ranking officer who suspected the speech had sunk like a stone before the immediate audience, youngsters more worried about staying alive in the desert than in history books.
Leith recounts the story in Words Like Loaded Pistols, his brief, rambunctious handbook of rhetoric, to illustrate a larger point. If you want folks on your side, you’ve got to speak their language. Collins would have done better to borrow a page from General George S. Patton, who roused his soldiers with a profane promise to get them home—the fastest route being through Berlin, where he’d personally shoot the so-and-so Hitler, “just like I’d shoot a snake!”
To help his readers both to hone their own rhetorical skills and... READ THE REST OF THIS ENTRY >>
It’s late, and, as always, I have lots of things I’d like to do before I go to bed. I don’t sleep much. I enjoy being awake. My dreams are quiet, but my days are full of things to explore, the treasures of ordinary life. So when I began to read Till Roenneberg’s Internal Time, a book whose dust jacket mentions sleep and biological clocks, I was hoping to find a passage clearly stating that those who sleep less are happier and wiser, and live longer, or at least are more interesting to talk to at parties. I didn’t find it, but the book was fascinating, and so I read on, and now, at 11 p.m., I have begun to write.
The story of the daily rhythms of our bodies begins with the study of the skies. In 1729, French astronomer Jean Jacques d’Ortous de Mairan found himself wondering how the Earth’s spin affected the species around him. He kept a mimosa, one of his favorite plants, on a windowsill near his desk. Leaves furled, it slept even when he could not, and so he decided to stay up a little longer and study how it knew what to do during the day and night. De Mairan put his plant in the cupboard. There it did as it had always done, opening all of its leaves simultaneously at daybreak and closing them at night. Somehow the plant knew what was going on outside the cabinet. That was the end of de Mairan’s experiment; he left the rhythm of mimosas observed but unexplained.
In 24 easy-to-read chapters, Roenneberg proposes to... READ THE REST OF THIS ENTRY >>
The crisis in American education—prenatal to postdoctoral—may be the nation’s longest-running soap opera. It’s hard to remember a time when there wasn’t hand-wringing about what was going on at one educational level or another. An acronymed army of councils and commissions and such thrives on stoking our unease and risks anaesthetizing our attention. How bracing, then, to hear a single voice as literate and reasonable as Andrew Delbanco’s. His message in College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be may be little more encouraging in the end than that of the furrow-browed alarmists, but it’s delivered with the high civility and spacious reach of the educational ideal he ardently defends.
Delbanco, a much-lauded scholar and teacher of American literature and culture at Columbia University, makes no arguments that other clear-eyed observers of American higher education have not. What commends his book is its richness of reference and its willingness to charge colleges and universities with lapses that should sow insomnia among administrators. “One generalization, I think, applies across the board: There is a sense of drift,” he writes. And after describing the ethical knottiness of the more selective institutions’ admissions policies, he observes, “The stark fact is that America’s colleges . . . have lately been reinforcing more than ameliorating the disparity of wealth and opportunity in American society.&... READ THE REST OF THIS ENTRY >>
Cult of Youth
In 1945, a million American teenagers all over the country took to gathering on Saturday nights to praise Jesus. Youth for Christ, the evangelical organization that engineered these “rallies” in hundreds of churches and auditoriums, played boisterous music and encouraged audience participation, transforming worship into feel-good entertainment. A 26-year-old pastor named Billy Graham barnstormed across America on behalf of Youth for Christ, telling audiences that Christianity was not all doom and gloom. “The young people around the world today who are having the best time are the young people who know Jesus Christ,” he declared.
These meetings initiated a startling trend, writes Thomas E. Bergler, a professor of ministry and missions at Huntington University, a Christian college in Indiana: The most successful American churches of the last half-century, primarily conservative evangelical Protestant ones, adopted Youth for Christ’s methods. Falling in love with Jesus, often with the encouragement of catchy music and uplifting sermons, took pride of place at the altar. Firm belief and religious duty receded in importance. Americans, Bergler observes, preferred to clap their hands to the beat and “feel better about their problems” than profess a selfless Christian creed.
In The Juvenilization of American Christianity, he explains how evangelical youth ministries, by attempting to beat American youth culture at its own game,... READ THE REST OF THIS ENTRY >>
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America’s top soothsayer gets philosophical about the perils of prediction.