Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Seven clips from Monty Python that you can use to teach the history of Latin America

Many years ago when I was a graduate student, I found myself teaching a course, shortly after the coup in Honduras, called "Democracy in Central America." (Yes, yes, the obvious joke: "That will be a short class.") I was interested in exploring the different ways in which democracy has been understood and defined, and the topicality of the Honduras coup was quite helpful, as there were many at the time who defended the unconstitutional coup as perfectly democratic, while others (more plausibly, in my view) insisted that it was not. In the course of one of my early lectures for the class, I made a reference to Monty Python and was stunned to discover that my students had no idea what I was talking about. And so I set myself a challenge: to incorporate one clip from Monty Python into my lectures each week. It was a pleasant thing to try, because the themes that dominate academic study of the Latin America are often so bleak. Here are some of the clips that I used.

1) For teaching about liberation theology: the clip from The Life of Brian when the folks in the back get into an altercation while Jesus delivers the Sermon on the Mount, saying "blessed are the peacemakers." When I lived in a base community in El Salvador, the Sermon on the Mount was part of daily ritual, and I find sharing it with students is one of the best ways to explain the parts of Christianity that liberation theology emphasizes. Bonus use for the clip: since the crowd in the back mishears Jesus as saying "blessed are the cheesemakers," you can tell the students about the cheese-making Quakers who moved to Costa Rica after that country abolished its army.

2) For teaching about U.S. occupations of Central American countries in the early twentieth century: "What have the Romans ever done for us?" from The Life of Brian. This one is very tricky, because it seems to imply that Roman occupation of Judea was in fact quite positive for infrastructural development. So I would use it like this: to explain that there were U.S. occupations that that didn't do nearly as much as the "Romans," and that what is being expressed is an ideology that justifies empire, not a serious argument in its favor. Also, that U.S. occupations did indeed attempt to change and reform political, cultural, and economic institutions in the countries they occupied, and that there were some ways that this went beyond simply "good" and "bad" effects.

3) For teaching about sectarianism on the left: "The Judean People's Front." I don't think this one needs much explanation. It came up a lot in my class on Central America, with regards to the internal composition of El Salvador's FMLN or Nicaragua's FSLN, for example.

4) For teaching about the Spanish Inquisition: the Spanish Inquisition clips from the Flying Circus, of course. I think that the "torture" scene where the lady is pummeled with soft pillows is probably the most useful, because it makes it possible to introduce the idea of the Black Legend of the Spanish Inquisition, and all of the ways that we now know that it was exaggerated for English consumption. The very fact that the Pythons are doing sketches about the Spanish Inquisition says something about their own educations, although naturally they subvert convention in a way that may be pedagogically useful. Of course the Inquisition was more than soft pillows, but this may help to both introduce and dislodge the idea of a "totalitarian" Inquisition.

5) For teaching about anarchism: the anarcho-syndicalist peasant from the Holy Grail. Anarchism was a major political ideology, especially in fin-de-siecle Argentina (but also in Mexico and elsewhere). With Occupy Wall Street and the like, students today may be somewhat more familiar with anarchist ideas than they were even five years ago. But it is important to reinforce the notion that anarchism is not the same thing as chaos, nor of individualism. The anarcho-syndicalist peasant explaining commune rules can get that conversation started (though should decisions be by consensus?) Apropos of nothing, the peasant is Eric Idle when he is walking but Michael Palin once he is down the hill. 

And two general-purpose clips that can help with classroom management:

1) The argument clinic, of course. "But I came here for an argument." "Oh, this is abuse!" A poor model for classroom conversation and debate, but a dead ringer for arguments online.

2) For getting students to relax before an exam: Karl Marx answers questions about football. Just promise them that you won't do this sort of thing to them.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

In which I read David Brat's dissertation so you don't have to

By a series of improbable near-coincidences, I happened to be looking at the dissertation of David Brat today, on the day after he defeated Eric Cantor in the Republican primary. Under the circumstances, I wrote a review of the dissertation, which is being featured by Washington Center for Equitable Growth.
In defeating House majority leader Eric Cantor in his Republican Party primary, Tea Party-identified David Brat has surprised the political world—including Eric Cantor, whose pollsters assured him he had a comfortable lead. (It has also done some damage to the no-doubt partly-true thesis that the difference between the Tea Party insurgents and the “mainstream” Republican Party had narrowed to the point of insignificance.) Brat defeated Cantor in spite of having only a fraction of Cantor’s power, a fraction of his spending, and a fraction of his allies. Journalists and poltiicos have since been scrambling to learn more about Brat’s thinking. Because Brat is a professor of economics and business at Randolph-Macon College, he has left a large paper trail. Many Tea Party-aligned works—such as W. Cleon Skousen’s The 5,000 Year Leap, a dreadful “history” of the United States as a Christian nation—have been offensive to professional standards. Does Brat’s work fit into that category? It does not.
There is, unsurprisingly, no question that Brat is a conservative. He is to the right of Cantor on most issues. He ran against Cantor’s “corruption,” something that seems consonant with a 2011 essay titled “God and Advanced Mammon—Can Theological Types Handle Usury and Capitalism?” There, he warns of both conservative and liberal hypocrisy and calls for a church that coexists with modern capitalism. (He also writes that he has “the sinking feeling” that someone like Hitler could rise again.[1])  
Brat also administers a $500,000 grant from Branch Banking & Trust Company to teach the “moral foundations of capitalism” at Randolph-Macon, a program that teaches the “free market” principles of Ayn Rand. Brat says that he himself is not a “Randian,” though he says he has been influenced by her works and her perspective.[2] (Rand, of course, was an atheist who thought that belief in God was irrational. One reasonable hypothesis would be that Brat shares Rand’s views of capitalism, but doesn’t accept the anti-religious elements of her worldview.) In an interview in 2010, Brat asserted that “[t]he latest in economic research shows that ethical ideas may matter just as much as traditional economic variables in generating long-run economic growth.”[3]
His works make clear that the intersection of religion and capitalism has long been a matter of interest and concern. And though the published work mentioned above shows no signs of meeting high academic standards, he did earn a Ph.D. in economics in 1996 from American University. His dissertation was called “Human Capital, Religion, and Economic Growth,” and situates itself in the large debate about why some countries are rich and some are poor. Like many dissertations in economics, it is split into three semi-related chapters, at least some of which were later published as journal articles. 
What ties the dissertation chapters together is an interest in the stock of total social knowledge within nations. Brat believes that this aggregate “research and development” capital does a great deal to explain the differences between rich and poor nations: the more, obviously, the better. 
The first chapter of his dissertation is concerned with “[Research & Development] Spillovers and International Convergence,” and focuses on R&D “spillovers” from those that do the research to those that don’t, and finds that these spillovers contribute to the convergence between rich and poor economies. It also argues that the effect of research and development capital is stronger than the effect of human capital, defined in a limited way as investments in secondary education. The second chapter of the dissertation, “Inequality among Nations,” examines changes in inequality between 1960 and 1988. He finds that global inequality worsened over that period, and attributes the differences to R&D investment. In the absence of “spillover” that he explored in Chapter 1, he argues, inequality would be even worse. 
But why, he asks at the end of the chapter, are human capital inputs such as scientists so unevenly distributed throughout the world? It’s a question that he addresses in the third chapter of dissertation, which, by appearances within the text and also given his subsequent career, seems like the most personal. (It also takes up about half of the pages of the dissertation.) In chapter 3, “Science and Religion in the 19th Century,” Brat contributes to a debate in historical sociology that stretches back to Max Weber about the role of religion in economic growth. (Weber, though briefly discussed, is shockingly not cited in the dissertation.) 
Like Weber, Brat believes that Protestantism shapes other social institutions in a way that leads to economic growth. For Brat, however, it is not so much that Protestantism inculcates personal thrift and hard-work, but, more importantly, that it is most compatible with the rise of science. Brat’s hero of economic growth is not the Calvinist farmer or shopkeeper, but the Protestant scientist. 
The chapter examines the rise of scientific education in (Protestant) Germany and England and contrasts it with Catholic France. The basic findings are that Protestantism stimulates scientific production by influencing educational institutions, the organization of the state, and philosophical modes of thinking among scientists. Yet in making the case, Brat is forced to confront the weakness of his own evidence. He catalogues a variety of mild effects attributed to Protestantism on education and the state—and, in particular, in limiting the state in England and allotting a large share of R&D to private industry. (My own view, in my capacity as an historian, is that “Protestantism” is probably not even the right category of analysis for what he is trying to accomplish.) 
Nevertheless, his examination of France leads him to conclude that “Protestantism is not a necessary condition for the advancement of science.” State support, such as existed in France, is sufficient in the short-run, he concludes, but only Protestant-derived states provide the right kind of government structure to provide stability over time, as well as the decentralized environment that can produced good science and research. There is, it must be said, much that is dubious and little if anything that is original in this chapter. Everything is based on the work of other historians and economists; there is no real additional contribution. There is a huge amount of hand-waving in the chain of causation from Protestantism leading to constitutional republics leading to educational institutions leading to good environments for research and development leading to economic growth. It is certainly not the dishonest hack-work of a Skousen, but neither is it scholarship worth much consideration. The conclusion that Protestantism was indeed important for economic growth, though the effect was not large compared to other factors, does show some degree of intellectual restraint. 
But although the pieces are not connected in the dissertation, it is troubling to place the three chapters together. First, because challenging questions for a self-identified “free-marketer,” such as why the state has been so central to the research and development that he believes drives economic growth, are totally unexamined. But more importantly, the question posed at the end of chapter two, about why some countries lack of research and development capital, is given an implied (but not explicit) answer in the third chapter: they have the wrong religion. 
It is easy to see the basis of his interest in the relationship between religious values and ethics and economic growth, even in a nearly twenty-year-old dissertation. But his thinking shows no sign of having grown more complex in the intervening years, and the interview he gave in 2010—in which he states that “ethical ideas may matter just as much as traditional economic variables in generating long-run economic growth” suggests that the modesty of some of the dissertation’s claims has fallen away. 
It has left him, perhaps, with the kind of immodesty and conviction that led him to believe that he could challenge an incumbent Majority Leader—and win.

[1] Reid J. Epstein, “David Brat’s Writings: Hitler’s Rise ‘Could All Happen Again’,” http://blogs.wsj.com/washwire/2014/06/11/david-brats-writings-hitlers-rise-could-all-happen-again/
[2] Eric Lach, “Dave Brat Runs a $500,000 Program to Push Ayn Rand’s Ideas at College,” http://talkingpointsmemo.com/muckraker/dave-brat-bbt-moral-foundations-of-capitalism
[3] David S. Joachim, “A Long Shot so Long, the Tea Party Took a Pass,” http://www.nytimes.com/2014/06/12/us/politics/david-brat-waged-solo-fight-against-eric-cantor.html?module=Search&mabReward=relbias%3Ar 

Monday, June 09, 2014

An Anti-Conference (Interview) Manifesto

Now up at Inside Higher Ed:
The basic argument against the conference interview is straightforward: It imposes considerable costs on the interviewees at a time in their lives when they are likely to be painful to absorb. Professional membership dues, conference registration, airfare, and lodging can easily run to $1,000 or more. Most job-seekers are, naturally, people without secure jobs: graduate students, lecturers, adjuncts, and postdocs. Only the latter (and occasionally the first) are likely to have a support budget from their university to attend the conference, meaning that for most the money will come, in whole or in part, out of pocket. Candidates are sometimes only notified if they will have an interview a few weeks — or, in egregious cases, just a few days — before the conference begins. 
For a graduate student, $1,000 probably equals a month’s salary; for adjuncts and lecturers, it still represents many weeks of labor: money that they will be forced to spend on a kind of grotesque parody of an actual vacation. To this might be added the environmental costs of flying and the difficulties imposed on families, especially those with young children, and you have an institution that would seem to have little to recommend it. If it were not already a tradition, and someone proposed that candidates hoping for tenure-track jobs should have to pay a four-figure dollar amount simply to be eligible for possible employment, it would be considered an unconscionable form of pay-to-play. Yet because it is already the norm, it is accepted.
Read the whole thing here. Also read Rebecca Schuman, who makes a similar case.
Since writing, a friend in Stanford's History Department wrote to tell me that they've voted this year to eliminate conference interviewing. And the positive examples I give in the piece are based on experiences I've had on the job market. Best practices, or at least better practices, are available!