Saturday, December 7, 2013

Brave Genius 3: a study in contrasts

Looking again over the articles I mentioned last night, I clicked on a link to a letter from a Berkeley math lecturer, Alexander Coward, to his students explaining why he would be crossing picket lines to teach his class. It makes for an even better contrast with Jacques Monod.

The letter has gone viral and received a good deal of praise. It would be funny (and sad) in any context, if only for its presentation of political stupidity and ignorance as insight and sophistication:
Whatever the alleged injustices are that are being protested about tomorrow, it is clear that you are not responsible for those things, whatever they are, and I do not think you should be denied an education[! - SC] because of someone else’s fight that you are not responsible for….

…Beyond practical matters, I think it’s also worth reflecting a little on the broader relationship between politics and your education, and I think I have some important things to share on this topic that may be helpful to you.

…If I’ve learned one thing about politics since I was your age, it is this: Politics, like most things in life worth thinking about, including mathematics, is very big, very complicated, and very interconnected. I’ve lived and worked in four countries on four continents, all with societies set up differently both politically and socially. I’ve discovered that there is no unique or obviously best way of setting up society. For every decision and judgement you reach, there are people who benefit and people who lose out.
How true. Fascism, democracy, Sweden, Afghanistan,... – just different ways of doing things, winners and losers in each, no point in opposing any one system or fighting for another. It’s all frightfully complicated, and who’s to say what’s better or worse? Who are we to claim that it’s better when workers receive decent pay and benefits and are treated with respect, or that this is a human right worth fighting for?

As responses have noted, Coward’s own working conditions and the students’ access to affordable public education (as well as the fact that they have the choice to speak out about political issues on campus) are the result of previous struggles and acts of solidarity. But no matter to Coward. He encourages students to put all of their focus on their education (which he defines to exclude participation in social justice movements, apparently):
And do not fall into the trap of thinking that you focusing on your education is a selfish thing. It’s not a selfish thing. It’s the most noble thing you could do.

Society is investing in you so that you can help solve the many challenges we are going to face in the coming decades, from profound technological challenges to helping people with the age old search for human happiness and meaning.
He could ask these scientists how people’s focusing on their own education and work panned out.

But what struck me most was the contrast between Coward and Jacques Monod, whose actions are described in Brave Genius. Monod delayed and interrupted his scientific work repeatedly to involve himself in social causes: to lead Resistance struggles, for example, to help Agnès Ullmann and Tamás Erdös escape from Communist Hungary, to support the student uprisings of ‘68,… It didn’t stop him from Nobel-worthy work, but it easily could have – he risked his life many times. Completely foreign to him was the idea that scientists or students were a special category of elites who were excused from struggles to end oppression and exploitation because of need to dedicate themselves to intellectual pursuits for the hypothetical good of future society, or that this was a noble path. What a difference from people like Coward.

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