Larissa MacFarquhar at Stanford: Extreme Morality

January 5th, 2013 § 1

There’s no better writer on the lives and ideas of intellectuals than the New Yorker’s Larissa MacFarquhar.  Her profiles, frequently of academics, and often of philosophers, are always good reading.  As someone who opens the New Yorker and thrills to a MacFarquhar profile as most do to an Anthony Lane review, I’m excited that MacFarquhar will be in brief residence at Stanford with the Program on Ethics in Society in mid-January.

In addition to conducting some writing workshops with seniors working on their honors theses and meeting with freshman in the Structured Liberal Education program, she’ll be giving a public talk on January 15, 2013 with material drawn from the book she’s currently writing on Extreme Morality, profiles of people whose moral commitments lead them to extraordinary acts and exceptional lives, often at seeming great cost to themselves and the people they love and who love them.  Details on the poster below.

I think her specialty is capturing the strange beauty of monomania.  If you’ve seen the recent documentary on Bill Cunningham, eccentric fashion photographer for the New York Times, or on Jiro Ono, eccentric genius from Jiro Dreams of Sushi, you will know the kind of monomaniac I have in mind: individuals who cannot do other than passionately devote themselves to a single activity.  MacFarquahar’s profile of Momofuku chef David Chang fits this mold. So does her article on Pat and Paul Churchland, philosophers at UC San Diego who work on the mind-body problem.

My personal favorite is her 2011 piece on Oxford philosopher Derek Parfit, How to Be Good [gated].  Parfit is one of the most important living philosophers.  In addition to nimbly conveying the substance of his views on the objectivity and unity of morality – hardly the stuff of a page-turning New Yorker article – she captures the person behind the ideas.  I have never met Derek Parfit, but I know and admire the type:

He moved into rooms at All Souls and settled into a monk-like existence.  There was usually a woman in his life somewhere, but he spent very little time with her. Almost all his waking hours were spent at his desk. All Souls resembles a monastery.  Its fifteenth century stone arcades surround a vivid lawn that is immaculate because it is seldom used: All Souls has no undergraduates and is not often open to the public – its gates are shut.  All his needs were taken care of by the college: he was housed, fed, and paid, and nothing in the way of emotional output was required of him. This was how his life had been since he went to boarding school, at ten, and it suited him. He had become, he realized, what psychiatrists call institutionalized – a person for whom living in an institution feels more normal than living in a family.

. . .

Other than his trips to Venice and St. Petersburg, the only reason he left All Souls for any length of time was to travel to America, to teach. He had appointments at Harvard, Rutgers, and N.Y.U.: he wanted students, because he found that it was discouragingly difficult to persuade older philosophers to change their minds. He also needed students, because only they would talk philosophy with him for twelve hours at a stretch and then wake up the next day wanting to do it again.  Older philosophers (and his students from past years were now in this category) had children and spouses; they sat on academic committees and barbecued in their backyards.

I am not capable of this kind of devotion, nor would I wish for such a life, were I capable of it. I have a spouse and children. And I both serve on academic committees and barbecue. I am happy, and better off, for all of these. But I admire Parfit’s life and am grateful that our social arrangements make possible such lives. Monomania need not be madness. It can be greatness.

Are Stanford Students Just (Really Excellent) Sheep?

March 24th, 2011 § 21

Ten years ago David Brooks wrote a provocative piece, in his trademark comic sociology genre, about the lives of undergraduates at elite universities.  It was called The Organization Kid, and it portrayed the average Princeton/Yale/Harvard/Stanford student as extremely bright and morally earnest but ultimately rather uninspired and herd-like conformists.  Meritocratic hoop-jumpers.

It’s a piece that unfailingly stimulates a good discussion among undergraduates in some of the classes I teach here at Stanford.

Brooks’s article is at heart ambivalent about the undergraduates he describes: they’re lovely, talented, and kind, but also overly deferential and obsessed with resume-building.  More recently, William Deresiewicz published an article in a similar spirit but with a significantly greater negative judgment.  Deresiewicz, now a full-time writer but then an English professor at Yale, wrote in The Disadvantages of an Elite Education that,

Yale students think for themselves, but only because they know we want them to. I’ve had many wonderful students at Yale and Columbia, bright, thoughtful, creative kids whom it’s been a pleasure to talk with and learn from. But most of them have seemed content to color within the lines that their education had marked out for them.

Deresiewicz doesn’t blame the students alone for this.  He also takes the university to task:

When elite universities boast that they teach their students how to think, they mean that they teach them the analytic and rhetorical skills necessary for success in law or medicine or science or business. But a humanistic education is supposed to mean something more than that, as universities still dimly feel. So when students get to college, they hear a couple of speeches telling them to ask the big questions, and when they graduate, they hear a couple more speeches telling them to ask the big questions. And in between, they spend four years taking courses that train them to ask the little questions—specialized courses, taught by specialized professors, aimed at specialized students. Although the notion of breadth is implicit in the very idea of a liberal arts education, the admissions process increasingly selects for kids who have already begun to think of themselves in specialized terms—the junior journalist, the budding astronomer, the language prodigy. We are slouching, even at elite schools, toward a glorified form of vocational training.

The article ends with one of his students asking him, ““So are you saying that we’re all just, like, really excellent sheep?”

When I teach Deresiewicz’s article to Stanford students, they bridle at his description.  But I think they also recognize some of what Deresiewicz describes all around them.  The hoop-jumping mentality.  The instinctive deference to authority.  The idea that every activity they undertake be “a growth experience.”

Deresiewicz has since written a few other articles about elite undergraduate life, Solitude and Leadership and What are You Going to Do With That?

In a new initiative, the seniors in the Stanford Program on Ethics in Society select someone they would like to invite to campus to give a talk.  The seniors in the program this year selected Deresiewicz, and I was grateful when he accepted the invitation to come to campus for a few events.  The public event he’s doing is on April 12, 2011 and is entitled “Are Stanford Students Just (Really Excellent) Sheep?  Flyer below.  RSVP to Andrea Kuduk.

UPDATE: Video of the event available here.

Inside Job at Stanford

March 23rd, 2011 § 2

The Center for Ethics in Society is sponsoring a great event in early April.  We will offer a free screening of the Oscar-winning documentary Inside Job.  And then director Charles Ferguson will come to campus the following night to join a panel of Stanford scholars to discuss the issues raised in the film about the financial crisis and, hitting closer to home, the role of industry-supported scholars and experts in the finance industry.

The Academy Award winning documentary Inside Job not only looks at the causes of the 2008 financial crisis, but also raises important questions about the “soft corruption” of academic research. Such questions arise not only with respect to economics, a subject of the film, but also medicine, law, public policy and even art.

Please join us in a showing of the film and a discussion of the ethical issues raised by the film as they relate to research: issues such as the influence of money, conflict of interest, transparency, accountability, and the responsibility of researchers.

Full details below the fold. » Read the rest of this entry «

Wendy Kopp and Teach for America event

January 11th, 2011 § 0

Wendy Kopp, the founder and CEO of Teach For America, will be visiting campus tomorrow, Wednesday, Jan. 11.   She’ll be delivering a lecture as part of the BASES program on social entrepreneurship.  And she’s doing an event, in conversation with me, at 3pm, co-sponsored by the Program on Ethics in Society and the Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society.  See below for the flyer.

Political Theory Workshop Schedule, Fall 2010

September 27th, 2010 § 0

With the start of the fall quarter at Stanford we’re about to begin another year of the Political Theory Workshop.  Once again Josh Cohen and I are organizing and hosting the workshop.  And once again the workshop will be co-sponsored frequently by the Program on Global Justice.  The workshop meets 1:15 – 3:00pm on Fridays.  Contact Kelly Rosellen for details and to be added to the email announcement list.

The full schedule of the workshop can be accessed here.  A list of our fall quarter speakers is below the fold.

» Read the rest of this entry «

2010 Tanner Lectures at Stanford: Mark Danner on Torture and the Forever War

March 17th, 2010 § 0

Stanford University is one of nine universities to host an annual Tanner Lecture. These are named after Obert Clark Tanner, a scholar and industrialist, who endowed the lecture series to stimulate reflection on scholarly and scientific learning related to human values. The list of people who have delivered Tanner Lectures is a who’s who of the most prominent and influential scholars in the English-speaking world. Previous Tanner lecturers at Stanford include: Jared Diamond, Paul Krugman, Avishai Margalit, Harry Frankfurt, Glenn Loury. G.A. Cohen, Stanley Cavell, Nancy Fraser, Stephen J. Gould, Amy Gutmann, and Thomas Nagel.

The 2010 Tanner Lecture is by Mark Danner, a Professor of Journalism at UC Berkeley. Full details below. These lectures are open to the public.

Spring 2010 Tanner Lectures
Mark Danner (University of California, Berkeley)
Lecture 1: “Imposing the State of Exception: Constitutional Dictatorship, Torture and Us”
Wednesday, April 14, 2010
5:30 pm – 7:00 pm
Building 320, Room 105

Lecture 1 Discussion Seminar
Commentators: Eric Posner (Law, University of Chicago) and Colonel Steven Kleinman (Senior Intelligence Officer U.S. Air Force, 1985-present)
Thursday, April 15, 2010
10:00 am – 12:00 pm
Landau Economics Building, SIEPR A

Lecture 2: “Naturalizing the State of Exception: Terror, Fear and the War Without End”
Thursday, April 15, 2010
5:30 pm – 7:00 pm
Building 320, Room 105

Lecture 2 Discussion Seminar
Elaine Scarry (Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value, Harvard)
Stephen Holmes (Law, NYU)
Friday, April 16, 2010
10:00 am – 12:00 pm
Landau Economics Building, SIEPR A

Foundations & the Public Good

March 1st, 2010 § 0

The PACS Center will host on Thursday, March 4 an interesting event:

Philanthropy in the 21st Century: How Foundations Can Advance the Public Good.
5:00 – 6:30pm
Stanford Humanities Center
Levinthal Hall

Sterling Speirn, the President and CEO of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation (yes, the folks who make your breakfast cereal), will deliver the main remarks. I and several PACS Center Dissertation Fellows (Amanda Greene and Natalie Privett) will serve as discussants.

Sterling was the director of the Peninsula Community Foundation before heading off to lead Kellogg. Kellogg has played a large role in stimulating some interesting new initiatives. I’m particularly impressed by their Food & Community grantmaking, which was doing great stuff far before Michael Pollan came along.

The event is open to the public. You can rsvp here, or by emailing Shana Sachs.

Larry Lessig’s 2010 Wesson Lecture at Stanford

January 22nd, 2010 § 0

Professor Larry Lessig, formerly at Stanford and now at Harvard (directing the Center on Ethics there) visited Stanford this past week to give a talk on Institutional Corruption. A well-timed topic, coming as it did just a day before the Citizens United decision.

The talk was a Wesson Lecture, sponsored by the Center on Ethics in Society. You can watch it in full below.

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