Genius and Popularity
The Guardian has an interesting article on whether U.K. art schools have a culture of celebrity
-- if institutions and instructors are encouraging the thought among students that they will be launched into success upon graduation. "Yes," says some established artists, and "No," reply the schools.
It's an interesting read, particularly when you consider that the economy is going south and that money going into collections may well drop, and individuals and institutions both feel an unpleasant tightness about the wallet. But I think that the question of celebrity and success is off from the real question: Who gets to wear the mantle of genius?
As a culture, we often assume that there is a meritocracy in all endeavors, and that the ones at the top are, by nature and work, the best. It's an approach that you could likely trace back to the Enlightenment and has appeared in many forms, whether the Social Darwinism of the 19th century or various forms of institutionalized racism that explained the dominant group's ascendancy as a combination of nature and application of self.
But that attitude is actually a form of rationalization. To accept that one is in a privileged position though pure dumb luck is to admit two things simultaneously: that one's advantage is unjust, coming at the expense of others who might be more deserving, and that one's luck could just as easily turn sour. A moneyed person, basking in his or her "superior understanding of life," can easily park a fortune with the likes of Bernard Madoff and become destitute as a result.
Rationalization of position within society extends into the arts, which have their own hierarchies and power structures. Those who matriculate from the various academies then apply for positions and assignments from the guardians of culture: the various people who taught them. The cycle extends itself and true artistic merit becomes that which fits in. I've seen some visual artists and writers argue that true genius always bubbles up, but I think that is wishful thinking.
Genius is often under appreciated. Bach's musical interests were in areas already on the wane in his time, and he was considered a second-tier composer, though a cracking good authority on the construction of pipe organs. It took a hundred years for his music to be resurrected, and it took a Felix Mendelssohn to do so. Herman Melville was written off by the critics during his lifetime to the extent that on his death, there was only a single newspaper obituary. Van Gogh? No one would buy his paintings. And yet each of these geniuses now outshines many contemporaries who were considered the major talents in their lifetimes. And these are a few of the examples of which we know. How many greats died too young, or utterly lacked in the art of self-promotion?
The great lie told in schools and in society is that those who are best will be known. Clearly that isn't the case. We are lucky as a people to have a hint of who might possess greatness in our own times, and the possibility of misjudging is high. The true way to work in the arts is through humility. None of us can ever really know how the future might treat us, or whether success is a matter of luck and having enough in common with those in power. All anyone can do is work hard, trying to understand the nature of what we do and honor it. Everything else is a distraction and a crap shoot. Or, as Ecclesiastes succinctly puts it, all is vanity.
Labels: art, education, fame
Many Academics Use Cognition Enhancing Drugs
The journal Nature just published the results of a survey it undertook in January about readers' use of drugs to enhance cognition, chemically stimulate, and reduce anxiety. Now, it sounds like this was an opt-in survey, meaning that it would be a self-selecting sample, and, as such, not one that is necessarily representative of even the journal's readers, let alone academia at large. There is a large geographic bias, with more than three-quarters of the respondents coming from the U.S. and U.K.; 64.5 percent said they work in either biology, chemistry, earth and planetary sciences, engineering, medicine, physics, media, or education, with the remainder being "other," whatever that means. The group skews young, with nearly 65 percent being under 36.
But still the results are interesting. One in five admit to have taken modafinil (Provigil), methylphenidate (Ritalin), or beta blockers like propranolol (Inderal) "to improve concentration or cognition." And additional 13.5 percent said they had taken such drugs for a medically diagnosed condition.
If you know anything about these drugs, they're intended for daily use. However, the usage patterns admitted to split into daily, weekly, monthly, or once a year at most, with fairly even numbers in each.
Of the over 1,400 answering the survey, 1254 answered the question "Should healthy humans be allowed to use cognitive enhancing drugs if they want to?"; almost 80 percent said yes. And 1258 answered the question, "Accepting a normal risk of mild side effects, would you boost your brain power by taking a cognitive enhancing drug?"; almost 70 percent said yes. About a third would feel pressure to let their kids take such a drug if other children in the school were doing so.
Obviously many people in academia, research, and the sciences feel no problem about others taking cognitive-enhancing drugs. But why is that any different from athletes taking performance-enhancing substances? There is effectively a public competition, with research money and even public acclaim at times going to those who get the edge in results. But isn't this a form of cheating - using something to let you do what you might not ordinarily to gain an advantage? According to Nature, one respondant from the US wrote, "As a professional, it is my duty to use my resources to the greatest benefit of humanity. If 'enhancers' can contribute to this humane service, it is my duty to take them." But is it really
for nothing but a humane gesture? What if suddenly there would be no possibility of person gain in tenure, money, or professional stature? Why shouldn't an athlete say he or she has a duty to move past the limits of normal performance for the good of his or her team and the fans of the team?
Labels: drugs, education
A Real Business Course
InsideHigherEd.com (via Slashdot.org) is reporting a brewing controversy at Hunter College in New York City: corporate sponsored courses
. According to the report, the International Anti-Counterfeiting Coalition (IAAC) - an organization of large corporations looking to reduce copyright infringement in the form of knock-off vendors pretending that their wares are major brand names - actually sponsored a course at the school last year, and that's resulted in the Faculty Senate getting involved:
According to the complaints filed with the Faculty Senate, Hunter agreed to let the IACC sponsor a course for which students would create a campaign against counterfeiting in which they would create a fake Web site to tell the story of a fictional student experiencing trauma because of fake consumer goods. One goal of the effort was to mislead students not in the course into thinking that they were reading about someone real. So-called “guerrilla marketing” — in which consumers are unaware that they are being marketed — is the subject of some controversy in the marketing and public relations world. But even among advocates for the tactic, there are some who are disturbed about what happened at Hunter.
Students in the for-credit class did such things as paper campus with fake fliers from an imaginary student looking for a lost Coach bag and a blog supposedly about her realizations that the bag was a counterfeit. Although being called guerilla marketing, I don't think the term applies. Guerilla marketing generally means using low-cost methods for getting interest in a business, with a premium on unusual methods - but you generally know that you're looking at something sponsored by a company.
The irony here is that this version of deceit and propoganda is trying to trick people to take specific actions much the same way as producers of counterfeit products try to trick consumers. They play on people's associations, deliberately misleading them, to gain their own ends. It's a bad situation when your own words and actions end up supporting that which you claim to oppose.
Labels: education, marketing, propoganda
Books That Make You Dumb
This is just too amusing not to share. Virgil Griffith is a computer science grad student at CalTech. He looked at the top 100 books that were popular at thousands of colleges, brought in the average SAT scores, and came up with an "average" SAT score for each of the books. The chart is at a site
he created called Booksthatmakeyoudumb.
Labels: books, colleges, education