Just Curious

Please state the answer in the form of a question... Just Curious is the occassional blog of Andrew Nelson. In an attempt to balance the polemical tone of most of the blogosphere, all entries hope to pose at least one useful question. Many entries simply advance useful memes. Personal entries may abandon the interrogative conceit.

Thursday, June 30, 2005

why not have an index? (meme/complaint)

At work I've been doing research on "therapeutic privilege," which is more or less when doctors withholds information from a competent person because they think it will harm them or render them unable to make decisions. So I've been looking through a host of bioethics books, mostly using the indices. When I ran across a book that didn't have one, I complained to the cubicle and many people agreed -- all nonfiction books should have an index. That led me to remember this passage:

The dyspeptic Thomas Carlyle consigned the publishers of any indexless book "to be damned ten miles beyond Hell, where the Devil could not get for stinging nettles." The cause of indexing enlisted the enthusiasm of the great law reformer Lord Campbell (1779-1861), who half seriously proposed that any author who published a book without an index should pay a fine and be deprived of the benefits of the Copyright Act.

from Daniel J. Boorstin, The Discoverers, 1983


Wednesday, June 29, 2005

dit dit da dit da dit (meme)

I had always suspected this might be true:


Tuesday, June 28, 2005

how do I get to Africa?

So we had a guest speaker at the AMA today who had recently returned from an education trip to Kenya and Tanzania. Naturally, I went. Not everyone who knows me understands that I have become more or less obsessed with Africa over the past few years. When I'm asked for my major, I'm more likely to say "history of medicine," which tends to be a more popular response than "history of colonialism." But I study the latter, too, and it's impossible to do that without considering Africa. As a result, I've become more interested in what the continet is like today -- its problems, yes, but also the many wonderful manifestations of African culture, which thrives as a part of the modern world.

The trouble is, I haven't been. Africa is a huge and varied place, and most of the people I know who can speak about it with any authority have visited a few different regions. I don't think I intend to become an Africa expert as such, but I think I need to visit there before I decide. But more importantly, I just really, really want to go and see this place I've been thinking about so much (the same thing that made me want to go to London).

So why haven't I gone so far? The easiest way would have been a study-abroad program. But I didn't want to go abroad my junior year because Lindsay was starting at the Art Institute. I can't do it my senior year because I'm working on my thesis. I might be able to apply for some sort of grant to do what I did in London -- a highly focused research trip. But I can't think of a legitimate topic, and I honestly don't think a trip like that would be realistic. I had a hard enough time getting things done in London, a place where I expect to return. If I were in an African country that I might never get to visit again, my desire to talk to people and see things would quickly overwhelm my research goals.

So what about after I graduate? Well, I'll need to be in Chicago for another year while Lindsay finishes school. Presumably I could apply for a Fulbright or something like that -- but I think what I really want first is a short-term trip that combines education and some sort of service. I think that would give me a more rounded experience and grounding for trips in the future. Actually, in an ideal world this trip would also include a bunch of people who I know want to know more about the continent or people close to me whom I want to convince of its significance.

I know that's kind of a crazy dream, but I don't think it's inconceivable. There must be foundations that put together these sort of trips for small groups. (Dr. Parsi went with Global Alliance for Africa, which is based in Chicago -- I'm going to check them out later.) Anyway, I just wanted to know if anyone had any ideas.


by the way, the name of our speaker was Kayhan Parsi -- he is supposed to have an op-ed article in the Trib soon, so look out.

Monday, June 27, 2005

what's the deal with this phrase?

Ever since I read C. S. Lewis's "Abolition of Man," I've been more interested in the myths of public education. Here's one I hear a lot:

"Communism is a great idea in theory, but it never works."

I have heard this statement, or some slight variation on it, from at least a fistful of high school students. Granted, my sample is probably entirely connected with the Blue Valley School District... perhaps the statement coudld be tied back to some highly influential teacher at Blue Valley Northwest. But upon reflection, it seems like a rather strange thing for a high school history teacher to say. I would expect them to have a pretty strong objection to it -- I also have one of my own, as you'll see.

The main thing that surprises me about this statement is the standard by which communism is being judged. Presumably the main point of a high school history education is to help students function in their own society and get some sense of its values. Before Santi tells me that this doesn't happen anymore, I actually think there's still a pretty strong sense of it in civics classes in the like. For instance, I distinctly remember being tested on something like this statement: "Americans value equality of opportunity, not equality in fact."

Furthermore, since high schools can teach very little actual history, it would seem like this sort of statement wouldn't fit with their program. I would expect students to be saying things like "Communism is bad because it gives the state too much power" or "Communism is bad because it doesn't reward individual enterprise." So I wonder why so many students seem to have come to the unexpected conclusion that communism is a good idea on a theoretical level *and* feel that they have accumulated the evidence that it doesn't work.

The only answer I can think of is that high school education has (rather quickly) absorbed the "End of History" school of thought. That's why the "is" statements of the previous paragraph seem antiquated. The truth of market liberalism seems so self-evident at this point that educators see no reason to even consider (and reject) the theoretical basis of other kinds of government. In this scheme, communism (or, rather, anything that isn't market liberalism) seem more like alchemy than outdated political philosophies. "A great idea in theory, but it never works."

Tho I generally support market liberalism, this concerns me. I think we need a thriving political imagination, not just to adapt to future changes in circumstance, but even to keep our present system healthy. We have to know what it is in order to maintain it. The corrolary of the "communism" statement is that market liberalism might not be the greatest system, but it's the one that works. But if you look at history, that's just not true. Freedoms and markets had to be imagined and built. They were positive ideals, not the natural state, and we must work to maintain the benefits they provide and extend them to more people. The idea that markets are "just the way things are" will inevitably lead to corruption and cronyism. And I'm afraid that's where "The End of History" may have brought us.

posting here

Hello all~

summer is always funny, schedule-wise. Right now I am an intern in the ethics group at the Americal Medical Association. Anyway, I work in an office, and at the end of the day there's usually a little bit of time where I'm not supposed to be doing anything and my desire to find extra work has sputtered out. This seems like a good time to blog. Therefore, you (two or three) might expect an occassional post from me now and then. This would be an infinite percentage increase over the past month or so.