It is my first cloudy day at Stanford. Sitting in class at Sociology, I do a little more study of how I sort people when I look at a crowd. It appears my internal decision tree looks like this:

Very little of this is conscious (just the innermost rows, if that). As you might imagine, realizing this is incredibly embarrassing, especially when someone the mental filter has blocked off starts talking to you or says something interesting (all of the sudden you go, whoa, where’d that person come from?). But I provide it here so others can learn from it.

I wonder how much of this is nature as opposed to nurture. (Note: There is a common misassumption that nature-derived traits are more permanent than nurture-derived traits. The opposite might be more true: Your natural tendency to build muscle can be overidden with weight-training, but the nurture practice of foot-binding is permanent.)

In the class itself we talk about the theory of “dramaturgy”, the idea that social contexts force people to present themselves in certain roles other people expect them to play. And when people step too far out of their roles, people in power quickly bash them back in.

This reminds me of my own experiences leaving power structures. Several years ago, I decided dropped out of high school because I disliked it so much (and because I’d spent the year reading and writing about how unhealthy it was). Around this time, when I spoke to adults about my decision, I was always puzzled by their reactions. Instead of arguing that school wasn’t so bad or that the badness was healthy (the regressive position, I guess) they generally tended say things like “You can’t buck the system, Aaron! You need to learn to work within it while staying yourself.”

I was usually pretty polite to the adults, but I was really puzzled by this. What system? I’m just leaving school (which was legal where I lived). It’s not like I was going underground or overthrowing the government or something. I didn’t even think it would be a problem for getting into college (as you can see, it wasn’t — it probably helped, actually) or a job. So why did they react like this?

Just before I left for college, I think I realized the answer. School is just one component in a system of institutionalized control that stretches from the family all the way up to capitalism. And the entire system is based on folk behaviorism, the idea that people need to do this to get that. Saying I was going to get that (an education, a life) without doing this (following the rules, going to school) was a radical statement that challenged the legitimacy of this whole worldview. To protect this worldview, they had to deny this was possible.

I realized this in the course of a challenge to another of these institutional systems: the family. Like school, the typical family is largely based on the principle that you must do what you’re told even when you disagree. (There are progressive families, just as there are progressive schools, but true progressive examples of either are pretty rare.) As I went off to college, I decided to challenge to challenge this authority by refusing to obey it. And, just as Chomsky predicts, the authority reacted with violence and force. (I have since stopped speaking to the authority.)

At first, I was a little disappointed that our sociology course would focus on things like schools and families instead of larger, more powerful institutions. But now I think this may be a subversive choice, since we tend to think of large institutions in terms of smaller ones. If we believe that the family works through dysfunctional control, we are likely to project this onto larger structures. And so, in class, we learn that even our closest social groups work by kids walloping each other until they fall into line.

Back at my Introduction to the Humanities, our syllabus says that the question of how to deal with inequality is “one of the most pressing issues” of our time. Really? What about the poor, the war, the shrinking middle class, or global warming? But, of course, we have to focus on racial inequality since discussing those other issues might hurt corporate profits. (Even then, note the regressive wording: remedying inequality is not the issue, only discussing whether we should remedy it.)

Our small-group discussion yesterday was disorganized and meandering, where it was far from clear what we were arguing about and whether our points were getting across. Today, in the larger lecture, I see it’s not exactly our fault. The “lecture” turns out to consist mostly of the three professors arguing with each other about what a paragraph really means, in precisely the same muddled fashion. Is this what the humanities is like? Even the RSS debates were better than this.

Well, these are major phenomena of modern life—but where do you go to study them in the universities or the academic profession? … In fact, you don’t go anywhere—… there is no academic profession that is concerned with the central problems of modern society. Now you can go to the business school, and there they’ll talk about them—because those people are in the real world. But not in the academic departments; nobody there is going to tell you what’s really going on in the world.

And it’s extremely important that there not be a field that studies these questions because … [people] might start to do something with that understanding. Well, no institution is going to encourage that.

— Noam Chomsky, Understanding Power, 241f

There is no class at Stanford on critical thinking. There is no class on intellectual self-defense. Nor one on propaganda. (The closest is a class given in Berlin on “Soviet and German Films of the 30s”.)

To teach public speaking skills, they had to start a whole new center with its own department. To get that new department to give a class on persuasion, the kids had to teach it themselves.

In general, there appear to be two types of classes at Stanford: classes on a track to graduating with a major in a certain field and classes that act as advertisements or introductions to each major.

I learn from my local RCC (dorm computer-fixer) that someone’s been telling all the techs that I’m in Wired. I suspect whoever is is reading this blog — I demand you identify yourself!

In other news, I’m taking nineteen “units” of classes (the computer-enforced maximum is apparently twenty; you only need to take fifteen to graduate on time) with maybe an additional three informally. And I still have gobs and gobs of free time. Maybe everyone else spends their time partying?

I attend a local seminar on the public’s attitudes about global warming and how they changed after Clinton’s 1997 summit on the topic. He started by citing a new study, “Balance as Bias” which finds that even though “[t]here’s a better scientific consensus on [global warming] than on any issue I know—except maybe Newton’s second law of dynamics”, the majority of stories in the elite media gave “rougly equal attention” to both believers and skeptics. The result? “[B]alanced reporting has allowed a small group of global warming skeptics to have their views amplified.”

Despite this incredible bias, polls show there’s more support for stopping global warming than practically any other political issue — even before Clinton’s summit. Because support was so high, the summit mainly had two effects: it increased the size of global warming’s “issue public” (the group of people who really care about an issue and write letters and checks for it) and it increased political polarization (so Democrats became more supportive and Republicans less, even though the overall numbers stayed the same). Presumably the latter effect was caused by kicking people like Rush Limbaugh into overdrive.

Interestingly, however, the polarization only occurred among people who said they had little knowledge about the subject. From this I’m tempted to conclude that one reason for the country’s increasing polarization is the media’s increasingly poor coverage of the issues. The speaker suggested that in the future polling agencies should break down issue polls by those who have high and low knowledge in the subject.

By contrast, high knowledge people actually did the opposite and coverged, both sides agreeing that global warming was an issue.

For some reason our dorm was chosen as the place to watch the presidential debates, making it difficult for me to get thru the lobby to the cafeteria. I sit and watch most of it (well, hear most of it, the TV screen is completely blocked by people sitting, standing, standing on chairs, etc.). There is a lot of laughing at Bush, even when he’s just speaking normally (as opposed to speaking about “mexed missages”). There is applause when Kerry seems particularly tough. The most popular line of the night is when Bush freaks out and snaps “of course I know that Osama bin Laden attacked us!”

Bush’s major argument seemed to be that we should lie to our troops and allies so that they’ll feel better. Kerry should have snapped back by saying that our troops and allies can see with their own eyes that things aren’t going well, and lying to them further will just make things worse.

The night closes off with a game of Capture the Flag against a neighboring dorm. We dress in black clothing and war point. We gear up by watching Braveheart. We go over the basic rules on a large whiteboard. We set out to the march of war drums (well, an upside Rubbermaid container). “Fists up, guys — defiance!” someone shouts and people follow along. Despite the repeated denunciation of our enemies (the literary/educational dorm FroSoco) as “social retards” (“Hey, Roble Love!” “Roble Love doesn’t apply”), we lose terribly 3-0 or something.

Playing brings back fond memories from my childhood school days where I’d sit with the other kids like me way out at the edge of the field by the flag. Like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, we’d mostly talk about stuff until suddenly someone whizzes by and steals the flag.

Since it’s dark and we have no idea who’s on which team, we mostly depend on social cues to tell what to do. For example, if a bunch of people are chasing someone you chase after the guy. The other team deftly takes advantage of this by staging mock chases and introducing spies. The spies are apparently how they win so easily. The game has no set location for the flag — you get to hide it wherever you want — so presumably they just send a spy to ask where the flag is, go pretend to guard it, and then take it back.

Music: The Garden State soundtrack is really good. (Almost as good as the film, which was amazing.) Especially the song (not on the CD) “Such Great Heights” by The Postal Service.

posted October 02, 2004 05:44 PM (Education) (6 comments) #


Stanford: Day 5
Stanford: Day 8
Stanford: Day 9
Stanford: Day 10
Stanford: Day 11
Stanford: Day 12
Stanford: Day 14
Stanford: Day 15
Stanford: Day 16
Of Conspiracies and Filing Cabinets


Units don’t really represent the amount of work you’re doing. each class starts out easy and gets harder. Engineering classes have fewer and fewer units as you continue in a major, and get harder and harder. IHUM is a filler class, that gives you 5 Units for the work of 2-3. Many people also spend a large part of their time on extracurricular activities. Enjoy your free time while you have it :-)

posted by Can Sar at October 2, 2004 08:15 PM #

So, the first thing you notice about people is how they look (their race), hmm? I guess that’s what we all notice first when we see someone (unless you’re blind, but I wonder if blind people can pick up accents and then segregate). That’s interesting, because you’ve commented on this several times, and I was wondering if this was the first time you’ve been exposed to such diversity, and to this great of a degree. I don’t really subscribe to the notion that people are unconsciously racist. Of course, you have racist people who hide their tendencies, or who are overtly racist. Then you have people who are not racist, but feel a little ‘uncomfortable’ being around people of different races. Then ther’re people who are not racist, or are slightly and recognize that fact within themselves, and try to minimize it as much as they can. But, I don’t think that racism has to exist at all. It’s all a metter of how you were growing up. If you lived in a racially homogeneous society, where racism existed to a certain degree, then you are more likely to have this debate inside you. But, if you grew up in a racially mixed society, where racism didn’t exist, or was actively discouraged and frowned upon, then it is far less likely that you would feel this way. The question remains if there can ever be a society where racism doesn’t exist. This is even more perplexing when you consider how even subtle differences can provoke such feelings (for instance, even if you are white there are different degrees of complexion, and same if you’re black, etc.).

Well, I’ve enjoyed your commentary. Who are these authority figures that you don’t talk to anymore? Even though you didn’t like highschool, I have a feeling that you may like college. I think you will have a long career in academia. In college there are some who come in and go out, taking the most direct route, which is usually the one that you find in the course catalogs. Then there are some who seem to get a little lost, who like to look around and see what it has to offer, and who take a little longer to finish. Thanks for the link to “balance as bias”.

posted by Prabhat at October 3, 2004 03:36 AM #

I agree that the Garden State soundtrack is one of the better CDs I’ve heard recently.

I’ve actually found that one of the most efficient ways to hear consitently high-quality indie music is watching snowboarding DVDs — I first heard “Such Great Heights” on Robotfood’s Lame, which was released 9/30/2003

Of course, the visuals tend to be even more fun. I do sometimes wonder whether the part of the brain that’s responsible for being a good snowboarder is physically unable to coexist with the part of the brain responsible for good judgement.

For those who aren’t aware, The Postal Service has actually put up Such Great Heights as a free download — feel free to grab it here (direct link to MP3).

posted by Ben Karel at October 3, 2004 04:50 PM #

Aaron Swartz wrote, “… [O]ur syllabus says that the question of how to deal with inequality is ‘one of the most pressing issues’ of our time. Really? What about the poor, the war, the shrinking middle class, or global warming?”

Could it be that these people are hypothesizing that inequality is the root cause of the problem, and that the poor, the war, etc., are some of the symptoms? E.g. inequality (a cousing to inequity?) breeding unequal distribution of wealth, marginalization of the non-normative, etc.?

I posed that question because, I think for college to work effectively, you have to “suspend your disbelief” for a while. I remember one of my philosophy profs counseling us, “Don’t just dismiss this guy the minute you start reading him just because you disagree with him. Hear him out. Pretend like you DO agree with him and try to get inside his head and understand what he said and why. Once you’ve done that, THEN you’ll be qualified to disagree with him.”

posted by Russ Schwartz at October 4, 2004 08:03 AM #

I was wondering if this was the first time you’ve been exposed to such diversity, and to this great of a degree.

Yeah, I guess so.

But, if you grew up in a racially mixed society, where racism didn’t exist, or was actively discouraged and frowned upon, then it is far less likely that you would feel this way.

I think the problem is that I had the latter but not really the former. I have memories of when I was a young child and saw a black person (which I guess must have been a pretty rare occasion). All I could think about was stopping myself from callng him black (and thinking he was black, to some extent) because I thought that would offensively racist.

posted by Aaron Swartz at October 4, 2004 11:55 PM #

Power structures, governments & schools. Your comments reminded me of Buckminster Fullers explanation of the purpose of Universities (btw he dropped out of Harvard two times). In his story “The Great Pirates” from “Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth” he describes how Universities came into existence as a means to select the brightest people of a generation have them streamlined & specialised so they would stay “ignorant” of the whole picture. These could be politicians, a general, etc. -snip-

“The Great Pirate knew the world was round when everybody else were kept in the belief that it was flat. He knew about grand logistical schemes, he knew about international exchange media and trade balancing, and much more. He was the only one who saw the whole picture of the planet and its resources, and was therefore able to play his game totally unnoticed by the vast majority of the population of the planet. All through the magic of specialization …”

-snap- Flemming has written a rough sketch about it here: but better check out the original - its a quick read, and very revealing.

posted by Michael at October 5, 2004 02:20 PM #

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