geert lovink on Wed, 3 Mar 2004 01:26:48 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> what would be nettime's reading list?

(Would it include Empire, Crowds and Power, Male Fantasies, a Foucault,
Ahrendt or even Deleuze? How much history (of science)? How much would
politically correct and which titles would really be useful? Geert)

The Problem with Dead White Males
 By Arnold Kling  Published 02/27/2004

"It's a pretty good zoo,"
Said young Gerald McGrew
"And the fellow who runs it
Seems proud of it, too."
-- Dr. Seuss, If I Ran the Zoo

University presidents seem pretty proud of their undergraduate colleges.
However, their answers to a recent poll suggest an alarming gap in their
knowledge: the past two hundred years. Asked by Michael Adams, President
of Fairleigh Dickinson University, to name the books "you believe every
undergraduate university student should read and study in order to engage
in the intellectual discourse, commerce, and public duties of the 21st
century," the academic leaders came up with a list that pretty much
excluded anything written after 1800.

Overall, the top ten were:

1) The Bible
2) The Odyssey
3) The Republic
4) Democracy in America
5) The Iliad
6) Hamlet
7) The Koran
8) The Wealth of Nations
9) The Prince
10) The Federalist Papers

The most recent of these books, Democracy in America, is from the first
half of the nineteenth century. Even though the question specifically
tilted the academics to look toward the future, they chose to bury
themselves deeply in the past. Further down the list of about 70 books
that received mention from at least two university presidents are only
about two dozen written since 1950. Given that these include such dubious
intellectual choices as What Color is Your Parachute? and The Seven Habits
of Highly Effective People, the modern portion of the university
presidents' reading list appears to be as thin in quality as it is in

As biology professor Marion McClary and blogger Randall Parker pointed
out, the academic leaders' choices are highly deficient in science. Most
university presidents would have their students face the 21st century with
no knowledge of experimental science, the theory of evolution, or
technological change.

My List

If I were asked to select five books that every college student must read
in order to be prepared to engage in discourse in the 21st century, my
list would be as follows:

The Blank Slate, by Stephen Pinker
The Age of Spiritual Machines, by Ray Kurzweil
The Transparent Society, by David Brin
The Diamond Age, by Neal Stephenson
Eastward to Tartary, by Robert Kaplan

The Blank Slate compares the belief systems of evolutionary psychologists
with those of many humanities scholars. In that sense, it compares the
best of modern thinking with the worst. It offers an excellent survey of
modern philosophical and scientific issues concerning human behavior and

The Age of Spiritual Machines extrapolates trends in the capabilities of
computers, tracing out the implications of Moore's Law for the
co-evolution of humans and machines. Of necessity, Kurzweil branches into
other fields, including biology and economics, with profound, provocative

The Transparent Society addresses what is certain to be one of the most
fundamental issues of our time: the implications of the communications
revolution for our concepts of privacy and power. If 18th-century
political philosophy, with the theory of checks and balances, was the
blueprint for solving the problem of designing a constitutional democracy,
then Brin's work may be the blueprint for designing an approach for the
modern age.

 The Diamond Age is a work of science fiction. My view is that Stephenson
provides a better introduction to the potential of nanotechnology than any
nonfiction work on the subject.

 Eastward to Tartary delves into some of the most politically backward
societies on our planet. It is a powerful antidote to naive theories of
economics and politics. Unlike modern technocrats who confer in four-star
hotels when they visit the underdeveloped world, Kaplan ventures into the
countryside, where bandits and police can be indistinguishable.

Extending the List

College students have time to read more than just five books in four
years, even taking into account the need to select a major and to take
"practical" courses. Here are some more books that I believe could benefit
any undergraduate.

The Skeptical Environmentalist, by Bjorn Lomborg, combines ecology with
statistics and economics. It is a fine example of the scientific approach
to a complex subject.

The first two volumes of Robert Skidelsky's biography of John Maynard
Keynes are remarkable intellectual studies. Keynes is a very difficult
mind to penetrate, and Skidelsky's success is remarkable.

Great stories help to illuminate human psychology and social context. Tom
Wolfe is an outstanding writer, combining keen human insight with colorful
prose. His first fiction work, Bonfire of the Vanities, is what I would
recommend the most, although it is hard to pass up some of his earlier
journalistic efforts.

I have said before that I believe that young people should study the
1930's, because of the economic and foreign policy disasters that occurred
during those decades. I recommend reading economist Randall Parker's
Reflections on the Great Depression and Winston Churchill's The Gathering
Storm. Churchill's mastery of the language is justification itself for
reading his work.

Of all of the scholars who have attempted to provide perspective on the
war between the United States and militant Islam, Ralph Peters is the one
who impresses me the most. One example is his book Beyond Terror.

Given my own background, I believe that the insights of contemporary
economics are important. In particular, it is important to understand the
ability of decentralized markets to process information and provide
technological dynamism. If students do not take an economics course -- and
even if they do -- I recommend something like Virginia Postrel's The
Future and its Enemies or Thomas Sowell's Basic Economics or Sowell's The
Vision of the Anointed.

 Justifiable Caution

I mean no disrespect to Shakespeare and Homer. I certainly have no
objection to students reading the ancients -- or, for that matter, the
works of Kant, Locke, and other great scholars who did not make the
university presidents' list.

 In some respects, the caution shown by focusing on classics may be
justified. When professors at the University of Maryland have selected
modern works for courses for my oldest daughter, these have included the
films of Michael Moore, the play "The Vagina Monologues," and postmodern
sociological history. She showed me a quiz in which "Gender is socially
constructed" was given as a true-false choice. No room to explain, argue,
or analyze. Just True or False! And the correct answer was supposed to be
"True"! If this is the professors' idea of contemporary thinking, I would
rather that they stick to Plato.

 Humanities professors are capable of inhabiting the modern world if they
choose to do so. The head of the philosophy department at Muhlenberg,
where one of my daughters attends college, is very much up to speed on
where biotechnology is going and the ethical issues that it poses.

Barriers to Entry

If I ran the zoo, so to speak, then a liberal arts education would include
more books from my reading list and more professors like the Muhlenberg
philosophy chairman. In a competitive environment, this updated liberal
arts education would beat out what is currently offered to college

The defective curriculum is protected, however, by strong barriers to
entry. The nation's top-tier colleges benefit from network and lock-in
effects. No single Ivy League undergraduate has the incentive to attend a
start-up college, unless a large number do so simultaneously. In many
industries in our economy, a fresh new player with a bright idea can make
inroads into the market. The academy is highly insulated from that sort of

Individual colleges do experiment with their curriculum now and then.
However, such experiments are limited by the power of tenured faculty to
resist change.

The Real Issue of "Relevance"

In the 1960's, radical students launched a concerted attack on the
"irrelevance" of the college curriculum. What they demanded, however, was
not more study of science and technology, but instead a new focus on
gender and ethnicity. These leftists are now ensconced in positions of
power in universities. I would bet that a fair number of the university
presidents in the Fairleigh-Dickinson survey were student protesters back
in the day.

Looking at the poll results, particularly when broken down into the
most-cited authors, it would appear that the battle to unseat the "dead
white males" from their commanding position in the academy has been a
failure. My concern is that while there is a lot of handwringing over the
dominance of "white males," the real travesty is that the writers
recommended by academic leaders are so long dead. The ancients have no
familiarity with the opportunities and challenges posed by widespread
affluence, scientific medicine, electric power, high-speed communication,
and computers.

If students today wish to protest to demand more "relevance" in their
education, then I believe that they have a case. How can they face the
twenty-first century if their academic leaders are oblivious to the
nineteenth and twentieth?

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