All posts filed under: Features

Notes From an Academic Paper Mill

One evening last fall, my de facto supervisor e-mailed me an audio file consisting of a three-minute conversation between a college sophomore from Saudi Arabia and his English professor in New York. The student had just surreptitiously recorded this chat using his cell phone; he had approached the professor hoping for specifics on how to improve the first draft of an analysis of Sylvia Plath’s work he’d submitted the previous week. His side of the conversation was notable for how painfully little English he knew despite having ostensibly completed a three-page assignment in that language. From 1,500 miles away, I set to work on a second draft using this new information. I was careful to stick to the grading rubric and minimize grammar errors while still writing in a sufficiently unrefined manner to convincingly imitate a Riyadh native who’d come to the U.S. a year earlier to get a university degree. Within an hour or two, I had e-mailed the new draft—stripped of Microsoft Word metadata to conceal the identity of the document’s real creator—to …

My Dissertation Disaster

“This is your chance to write in depth about what interests you,” said my lecturers as I prepared to embark upon my History dissertation. I had just finished studying the Russian intelligentsia’s epistolary networks of the nineteenth century, and had enjoyed it so much that I had often found myself deep-diving into the Soviet literature of the twentieth century, too. In my thesis I wanted to marry this newfound twentieth century interest to my longstanding fascination with totalitarianism. Whenever the concept of totalitarianism had come up in classes, it had intrigued me, but during my three years at university I hadn’t had an opportunity to study it in any depth. I was enthralled by what the philosopher Isaiah Berlin called “the long blank page of Russian history” during the 1930s and 1940s, and I wanted to find out more about the institutionalization of literature in the USSR. My dissertation provided me with the chance to do so. But a little over a year later, I found myself turning in a paper entitled: “What Can the Relationship Between Soviet …

The Indispensable Study of Inescapable Matters

Philosophy is not merely practical; it is the most practical discipline of all. Indeed, philosophy is so practical that it is indispensable. To know why, it is necessary to know what philosophy is. In the Western tradition, philosophy is subdivided into five branches: metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, politics, and aesthetics. Metaphysics is the starting point of any individual’s entire corpus of knowledge. Metaphysics begins with the axioms at the base of knowledge, and encompasses ideas pertaining to the basic nature of the world. These ideas include existence, consciousness, and their relation; entity, identity, attribute, change, and action; the nature of causality; and the nature and extent of free will. In short, metaphysics develops explicitly the basic concepts that are implicit in the very concept of knowledge. Epistemology is the theory of knowledge, that is, the method of knowing. Epistemology addresses how to take the evidence of your senses and form concepts, statements, sequences of statements, and a corpus of knowledge that is organized, non-contradictory, readily applicable to new situations, and conducive to the discovery of new …

Post-Postmodernism on the Left

Postmodernism has never been as unpopular as it is today, especially on the right of the political spectrum. Often, conservative critics can be heard to blame left-wing ‘postmodern neo-Marxists’ and ‘cultural Marxism’ for the emergence of a vitriolic identity politics that eschews a commitment to truth, reason, and dialogue. Left-wing postmodernists are seen as undermining truth, reason, and dialogue by criticizing these values as ideological ‘myths’ designed to reinforce white male privilege, Western colonialism, and so on. The specter of left-wing postmodernism is also invoked as one of the forces undermining the confidence of the West, leading us to submit to dangerous and illiberal groups around the globe. Some even go so far as to claim that, in allegedly promoting a fundamentally collectivist philosophy qua the Soviet Union, left-wing postmodernists are proto-Totalitarians waiting for their opportunity to quash all dissent. On this reading, the philosophy which guides the utterances of a transsexual rights activist in the United States and a Maoist revolutionary in China, are one and the same and just as dangerous in principle: …

The Historian’s Hubris

Niall Ferguson is a compelling writer, wry and puckish, intellectually curious. He has a knack for converting his deep knowledge of history and finance into narratives the average reader can grasp. There’s a generosity and a sense of excitement to his writing that have helped propel him to stardom in the publishing world and on the small screen. But for all his qualities, Ferguson didn’t know enough to pause before hitting ‘Send.’ Instead, by gleefully attempting to crush a coterie of left-wing Stanford University students who were trying to gain influence within his invited speakers series Cardinal Conversations, he threw gasoline on the blazing free speech wars and turned his own, noble-sounding words into ash. Ferguson has vowed to retreat “to [his] beloved study,” where presumably he will hunker down, reassess his methods and motives, and even, one hopes, re-emerge a better man. One of our era’s most recognizable defenders of free speech, Ferguson co-founded Cardinal Conversations to foster open debate at Stanford. When it was announced that Charles Murray, author of the infamous 1994 monograph, The Bell …

The Tragedy of Australian Education

In April, the Australian government finally published its airy and platitudinous report and review of the country’s schools. Popularly known as ‘Gonski 2.0’ after David Gonski, the businessman who chaired the review panel and who had chaired a previous review of school funding, it provided little evidence to support its proposals, despite evidence being a key requirement in the terms of reference. The report states that Australia must ditch its ‘industrial model’ of school education, the sort of cliché you would expect to hear in the most derivative education conference speech. Instead, each young person must “emerge from schooling as a creative, connected, and engaged learner with a growth mindset” (see here for a double meta-analyses of growth mindset interventions which shows that they have virtually no effect). The details of how to achieve this are vague, but the panel is clear on one key point: rigid, age-based curriculum content must be blown apart in favor of progressing students individually through a set of skills such as literacy, numeracy, critical thinking, and self-management. Despite its managerial …

Giving the Devil His Due: Why Freedom of Inquiry in Science and Politics is Inviolable

In the 1990s I undertook an extensive analysis of the Holocaust and those who deny it that culminated in Denying History, a book I coauthored with Alex Grobman.1 Alex and I are both civil libertarians who believe strongly that the right to speak one’s mind is fundamental to a free society, so we were surprised to discover that Holocaust denial is primarily an American phenomenon for the simple reason that America is one of the few countries where it is legal to doubt the Holocaust. Legal? Where (and Why) on Earth would it be illegal? In Canada, for starters, where there are ‘anti-hate’ statutes and laws against spreading ‘false news’ that have been applied to Holocaust deniers. In Austria it is a crime if a person “denies, grossly trivializes, approves or seeks to justify the national socialist genocide or other national socialist crimes against humanity.” In France it is illegal to challenge the existence of “crimes against humanity” as they were defined by the Military Tribunal at Nuremberg “or in connection with any crime within the …

‘If I Want to Hold Seminars on the Topic of Empire, I Will Do So Privately’: An Interview with Nigel Biggar

“Crete, unfortunately, made more history than it can consume locally,” Saki once wrote. The same can be said about the University of Oxford. Perhaps England’s last struggling bastion of meritocracy and intellectual hierarchy, Oxford is lately under relentless attack from equity activists trying to install affirmative action, and historical revisionists and ideologues trying to wreck Western canon in the name of ‘decolonization.’ I was invited at Christ Church College to take part in a private and secret colloquium and roundtable (a lot of the participants didn’t want their name and photos out because their careers might be jeopardized), on colonialism and imperialism. The chief speaker was Portland State professor Bruce Gilley, whose article argued that colonialism was much more nuanced than presented in modern Marxist and post-colonial discourses, and was then predictably retracted by Third World Quarterly, after protests by social justice activists. Somewhat similarly, at Oxford, professor Nigel Biggar was targeted immediately after his project “Ethics and Empire” was launched.  The colloquium itself went smoothly without protests perhaps because it was a secret, with …

What’s Wrong with the American Academy

A colleague of mine in the economics department once said, “when the price of bullshit is zero, demand is inelastic.” A corollary of this principle is that when the price of bullshit is zero, the supply of bullshit is infinite, especially when there are tangible gains for bullshitters.  Last year, I was a visiting scholar at the University of Arizona, which was in the process of starting a new interdisciplinary department (The Department of Political Economy). About a decade ago, the department chair got a grant from the Koch Foundation, which has donated to several universities around the United States. Because Charles Koch has a libertarian bent—he advocates drug legalization, criminal justice reform, and low taxes, among other things—a number of ‘progressive’ and socialist groups have gone after people who receive grants from the Koch foundation.  My point here is not to make a political statement. I don’t have especially strong feelings about Charles Koch, who I disagree with on some issues, and agree with on others. Instead, I want to use my case to illustrate what’s wrong with the …

At this Portland Bakery, White Guilt Poisons the Batter

The menu at the Back to Eden Bakery in Portland, Ore. features vegan and gluten-free ice cream, cookies and cupcakes, but it might as well itemize its impeccable intersectional credentials. Before hungry customers even set foot in the small shop in north Portland, they are confronted with a battery of progressive signs on a storefront reminiscent of a college equity office. “Safe space,” one of them proudly declares. “Black Lives Matter,” another reminds us. In the name of inclusivity, others carefully list all the different types of identity that are welcome. The bakery is owned by John Blomgren and Garrett Jones, a queer-identified couple. Since their business first opened its doors in 2009 and subsequently expanded, it has unsurprisingly found commercial success among Portland’s (in)famously progressive population. Last month, however, the business’s overzealous politics cost two young employees their jobs at the Alberta Street location after a local activist released a video complaining that she had been denied service for being black. In the wake of the Starbucks scandal in Philadelphia, in which two black men were …