Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Condi Rice and Walt Whitman

Today I was listening to Condi Rice being interviewed on a friendly talk radio show and heard her say something along the lines of "Had we but world enough, as Walt Whitman said."

"Had we but world enough and time/This coyness, Lady, were no crime" is the beginning of "To His Coy Mistress" by Andrew Marvell, who died about a century and a half before Whitman was born. There is no good reason why the Secretary of State should have a literary education, but it's odd to see her apparently faking one. If we assume the line was provided by a speech writer, it's odder still that he wouldn't have checked the source of the quote.

All of which reflects one of the many things that bothers me about our educational system. Considerable parts of it appear designed to teach people to pretend to intellectual tastes and knowledge that they do not possess and that there is no good reason why they should possess.

I will now wait for some Whitman enthusiast to find the line echoed somewhere in Whitman, and accuse me of lacking a literary education.

25 Comments:

At 11:18 PM, May 31, 2006, Blogger Varangy said...

All of which reflects one of the many things that bothers me about our educational system. Considerable parts of it appear designed to teach people to pretend to intellectual tastes and knowledge that they do not possess and that there is no good reason why they should possess.

Hi David,

Great blog and enjoy your writings.

Regarding your your comment above, pseudo-intellectuality is not so much a hallmark of a faulty educational system as it is the hallmark of being a (often douche-baggy) human being.

 
At 11:43 PM, May 31, 2006, Blogger montestruc said...

I can see if she read the quote and loved it, and loved Whitman all this being some 20 years since she read them, she might confuse authors on the fly. This was an interview right? You cannot expect people to be 100% right all the time from memory as to who wrote what that you read 20 years ago.

If it was a printed article she wrote, I would say it unforgivable., but from memory on the fly when she may not have read either Marlow or Whitman in 10 to 30 years? That is a lot to expect.

 
At 2:38 AM, June 01, 2006, Blogger Richard P. said...

Dr. Friedman,
Thank you for addressing something that has bothered me for a long time. I am an Econ and Russian Studies grad student. I know many things but I have friends that expect me to know obscure authors or even main stream ones. I don't have the time to read everyone. I wish I did because I am a curious man. But forgive me if Marx, Said and Hayek beat Galbraith for my reading list. The first time I had heard of Galbraith was at his death.

Of Russian writers, I have tried to get a taste of all of them but I am not complete. My friend Marina just two days ago told me to read Kuprin. Before that I had never read him nor heard of him.

I hope I am man enough to admit I don't know that which I don't know. For then only am I able to learn.

 
At 4:54 AM, June 01, 2006, Anonymous Joshua Kronengold said...

I'm afraid that while blowing the source of the quote is problematic (to say the least), I find myself more troubled by reversing the meaning of the original enough to make it nonsensical -- after all, the point of Marvell's line was that he -didn't- have enough.

Whle checking sources is good (especially if it was in a speech, not an interview), I'm less likely to fault someone for not remembering something I, myself, don't remember (and, like montestruc accidentally indicated, I'd have been more likely to attribute the poem to Marlowe, since Marvell wasn't over my knowledge threshold, and the period's only 50 years off). (by the same token, I'd be more likely to fault Rice for not recognizing that To His Coy Mistress is Elizabethan, since that -is- obvious to me, though still not as much as for reversing the quote).

 
At 6:49 AM, June 01, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

montresuc,

An econ grad student and you hadn't heard of Galbraith? What the hell are they teaching these days? I'd think that any look at early to mid 20th century economic history and you'd have to go out of your way to avoid him.

joshua,

Without the context of the quote, it's hard to say she reversed the meaning. If she was talking about Iran (extremely likely), the quote might very well fit. There is a certain coyness on both sides of the issue, and there is a time contraint that makes coyness a dangerous game.

--Kyle Bennett

 
At 6:52 AM, June 01, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oops, sorry, montestruc, that was richard I was addressing.

--Kyle Bennett

 
At 7:14 AM, June 01, 2006, Blogger montestruc said...

quote anon,
------quote---
montresuc (sic),

An econ grad student and you hadn't heard of Galbraith? What the hell are they teaching these days? I'd think that any look at early to mid 20th century economic history and you'd have to go out of your way to avoid him.
----end quote----

As you noted below that was not me, and I am by degree(s) a mechanical engineer who has an interest in economics, politics and even poetry. I have read Marlow, but not Whitman.

 
At 9:22 AM, June 01, 2006, Anonymous Jon said...

"...All of which reflects one of the many things that bothers me about our educational system. Considerable parts of it appear designed to teach people to pretend to intellectual tastes and knowledge that they do not possess and that there is no good reason why they should possess..."

Do you think this is intentional or a knee jerk reaction to the pressures placed by society or bureaucratic administrators?

 
At 9:58 AM, June 01, 2006, Blogger Scott said...

I think the misattribution entirely understandable, especially if it was an off-the-cuff remark. And if it is, as I suspect, just a simple mistake on her part, it's a leap to accuse her of "faking" a literary education.

 
At 1:41 PM, June 01, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I know some of Whitman and a decent portion of Marvell, but even still, in my experience their two styles are very, very different; if Condi were familiar with the works of Whitman, I think she would recognize at once that just the meter of the line is very unWhitmanian.

--NCA

 
At 2:56 PM, June 01, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Richard P. wrote: "My friend Marina just two days ago told me to read Kuprin. Before that I had never read him nor heard of him."

Am I the only one who gets annoyed by friends constantly telling me that "you HAVE to read (obscure author that said friend is fond of)"? I read a fair number of books, but I seem to get a command like this almost every day. I find it almost impossible even to approach the standard that some have set for being well-read. I assume that I'm not the only one. Hence the temptation to fake intellectual credentials.

 
At 6:09 PM, June 01, 2006, Blogger David Friedman said...

Montestruc:

"I can see if she read the quote and loved it, and loved Whitman all this being some 20 years since she read them, she might confuse authors on the fly."

If she loved the quote in context and was familiar with Whitman, I don't see how she could have thought it was by Whitman. The original is the beginning of a very famous seventeenth century seduction poem.

Joshua: "I'm afraid that while blowing the source of the quote is problematic (to say the least), I find myself more troubled by reversing the meaning of the original enough to make it nonsensical"

I'm not sure she did reverse the meaning. Her point may have been about the limits of the resources available for doing foreign policy right. I'm afraid I no longer remember the context in which she used the quote well enough to be sure.

Joshua: "by the same token, I'd be more likely to fault Rice for not recognizing that To His Coy Mistress is Elizabethan, since that -is- obvious to me"

It isn't Elizabethan. Marvell was born in 1621, well after Elizabeth died.

Kyle: "An econ grad student and you hadn't heard of Galbraith? What the hell are they teaching these days?"

Economics? Galbraith was an able writer and an important popular intellectual, but his influence on economics was negligable.

Scott:

"And if it is, as I suspect, just a simple mistake on her part, it's a leap to accuse her of "faking" a literary education."

There are two reasons to insert a quote--because it's actually part of your intellectual furniture or because you think quoting poetry impresses people. The misattribution is pretty clear evidence that it wasn't the first, which leaves the second.

What is your alternative explanation?

 
At 12:32 AM, June 02, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Because you think It will make the conversation more interesting, or more clearly show your point? Maybe because you think the person you are speaking with will recognize the quote and understand you better? I can think of a lot of more reasons to insert a quote not just those two.

 
At 8:26 AM, June 02, 2006, Anonymous johnt said...

"Much ado about nothing",Eugene O'Neill. Couldn't resist!
It was an interview and the subject that prompted the misquote is not cited. "Let him who has not sinned",etc. Martin Luther
I know of a fairly well known politician who managed to conflate and mangle the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Gettysburg Address, all in one convoluted paragraph. The guy was a former professor of consttutional law, in Arkansas.
Stuff happens, especially off the cuff.

 
At 3:25 PM, June 02, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

David,

"Galbraith was an able writer and an important popular intellectual, but his influence on economics was negligable."

This is John Kenneth Galbraith we're talking about, right?

http://tinyurl.com/ov2e7
(Wikipedia)

If you're talking about his influence on the science of economics I'll grant your point. But once you start getting deep enough into any US economic history, his name is bound to come up. I have wonder about the quality of an econ program that could so thoroughly avoid examining the kind of history and historical ideas in which JKG's name would come up. Maybe we should ask richard if he's ever heard of William Jennings Bryan - or even Keynes.

 
At 7:14 PM, June 02, 2006, Blogger Richard P. said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

 
At 7:15 PM, June 02, 2006, Blogger Richard P. said...

I have heard of WJB and the "Cross of Gold" speech. And many others who people 'should' know.

As far as economics goes, I have tried to talk with professors about Marx's theory of labor value and she stared back at me with the most vacant stare. These things happen and I won't be bullied or shamed for not having known something or been taught. I am young. When I look at some of my older professors I get intimidated because of their knowledge but then I reflect and understand they have had 35 years to get where they are.

 
At 10:30 PM, June 02, 2006, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous:

"This is John Kenneth Galbraith we're talking about, right?"

Right.

"If you're talking about his influence on the science of economics I'll grant your point. But once you start getting deep enough into any US economic history, his name is bound to come up. I have wonder about the quality of an econ program that could so thoroughly avoid examining the kind of history and historical ideas in which JKG's name would come up. Maybe we should ask richard if he's ever heard of William Jennings Bryan - or even Keynes."

Keynes is an important figure in the history of economics--Bryan isn't. Nor is Galbraith.

Academic education in economics concentrates on present day understanding of the field. Both the history of economic thought and economic history are specialized fields that many grad students don't know very much about.

For similar reasons, it isn't surprising that a professor Richard talked to didn't know much about Marx's labor theory of value. Marx was an important historical figure, but he isn't part of the main line of thinkers along which modern economics developed. Ricardo is--but most grad students don't know much about him, and what they know may not be true.

 
At 1:57 AM, June 03, 2006, Anonymous Rue Des Quatre Vents said...

David,

I think you're conflating matters here. I don't think pretentions to literary sophistication stem only, or mainly, from our educational system. I assume at least three other factors are in play: (1) signalling, (2) group contrasting effects, and (3) intragroup status pressure. All of which, or so J. R. Harris will tell us, is part of our nature and not our environment.

There's also a wonderful point made by the philosopher Harry Frankfurt in his "Bullshit" essay. For some people, sometimes the truth doesn't matter so much as achieving your purposes. Maybe despite misattributing her quote, Rice accomplished (1), (2) and (3) anyhow. So we can say that she bullshitted her way through it.

Can we apply Learned Hand's formula for negligence to cases like this? If the burden of checking the source of your quote is less than the cost of getting it wrong multiplied by the likilood that you will get it wrong (and the likelihood other will know you got it wrong) then you should bullshit your literary quotes.

 
At 1:35 PM, June 04, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Richard,

I'm not trying to shame or bully you, I'm sorry if it came off that way. What I'm questioning is the way economics is taught, at least in the program you are in. It's not a reflection on you.

David,

"Both the history of economic thought and economic history are specialized fields that many grad students don't know very much about."

Sure, in depth study of them might be a specialized field, but they still provide context for the theoretical. Are you telling me that economics is typically taught, not just a class, but an entire economics program, completely without reference to actual events and the theories (right or wrong) that have influenced them? It's like a political science graduate having gotten through the entire program without ever hearing mention of an actual President.

Oh, wait, let me guess...

--Kyle Bennett

 
At 11:03 PM, June 04, 2006, Blogger David Friedman said...

Kyle asks:

"Are you telling me that economics is typically taught, not just a class, but an entire economics program, completely without reference to actual events and the theories (right or wrong) that have influenced them?"

That would be an overstatement. I would expect Marx to be mentioned--but I wouldn't expect the average graduate student to know enough about Marx to do a competent job of explaining his ideas. The same might well be true of Ricardo and Smith, who are more important figures in the history of economic thought.

But Galbraith isn't an important figure in either economic history or the history of economics. There's little more reason to discuss him in an econ program than to discuss Bill Buckley or Walter Lippman--also prominent popular writers on economic and political issues.

So far as events, I would expect that the Great Depression would get discussed, because it is important for economic history, the history of economics, and current theory--a fact to be explained. Similarly for some other past events. But I would expect them to come in primarily as data relevant to getting economic theory right.

To be fair, what I am describing is some mix of what I have observed and what I would teach. There are a lot of universities, and I have data on only a few. I've seen undergraduate textbooks that had a page or two each on various prominent figures, and might possibly have included Galbraith--but I would have considered that an argument against using those texts.

Indeed, I would suspect that such information was put there to provide something that people who didn't manage to actually learn economics could learn and be tested on, thus letting them imagine they had gotten something important out of the course.

An econ program isn't, at least at good universities, and shouldn't be, about learning cocktail party conversation--being able to drop names of figures non-economists will have heard of. It isn't about being able to comment on recent controversies. It's about understanding a fairly sophisticated and difficult system of ideas for making sense of features of the world.

Do you think a physicist needs to know about Goddard? Tesla? Aristotle?

 
At 10:46 PM, June 07, 2006, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is this the interview?

There the line she attributes to Whitman is "the world is too much with us," which is a lot closer in time.

Perhaps this explains the disagreement over whether she interpreted the line correctly.

 
At 1:35 AM, June 08, 2006, Blogger David Friedman said...

"There the line she attributes to Whitman is "the world is too much with us," which is a lot closer in time."

It looks like the same interview, although I only heard a snippet of it. If so, I must have shifted it from one famous quote to another between hearing it and commenting on it--evidence that I shouldn't trust my memory.

But either way, it's a famous quote that is obviousy not by Whitman.

 
At 4:04 PM, June 14, 2006, Blogger Great Observer said...

Actually the quote is from a poem by William Wordsworth, which could explain rice's mix up with Walt Whitman W/W.

And speaking of Adam Smith and also of mix ups, I see the boy's at Mises.org don't like your take, David, on Rothbard's view of Smith:
http://www.mises.org/story/2215

 
At 1:26 AM, June 27, 2006, Anonymous leroy said...

Prof. Friedman blog May 31, 2006:
"All of which reflects one of the many things that bothers me about our educational system. Considerable parts of it appear designed to teach people to pretend to intellectual tastes and knowledge that they do not possess and that there is no good reason why they should possess."

Prof. Friedman blog, Dec 27, 2005:
"In the two centuries since it was written, the original language of the First Amendment has been expanded in two directions. The Doctrine of Incorporation holds that the XVth amendment imposes the restrictions of the Bill of Rights on the states."

A Secretary of State taken to task for faking a literary education by a law professor faking a legal education.

Interesting.

 

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