Sunday, November 9, 2014

Alexander Hamilton - Ron Chernow

The most unlikely, and one of the most forgotten Founding Fathers, Ron Chernow seeks to rectify some of the historical forgetting which has been so cruel to the legacy of Alexander Hamilton. A scholar of high finance, having previously published biographies on John D. Rockefeller and J.P. Morgan, in addition to detailing Hamilton's life, Chernow recounts how this first Treasury Secretary would both anticipate many of the country's economic transformations, and create the foundation for its banking and market success - in effect laying the fiduciary cornerstone which would come to exist between the country, its people, and its financial institutions.

Hamilton's rise to prominence could never have been forecast. A twice orphaned child in the West Indies, Hamilton's ascension to de facto aide de camp to George Washington was as unlikely as it was meteoric. Yet by the retreat following the Battle of Brooklyn, Hamilton was there, at the enigmatic Washington's side. While he was not lacking in courage, it was rather Hamilton's management acumen which won him a prominent place in Washington's inner circle. As Washington's star became increasingly luminous, so too did Hamilton reflect some of the General's light. Gifted with this narrow entry to American high society, the aspiring, young, recently trained lawyer, was not to be denied. Shortly, Hamilton would become a renowned New York lawyer and legal thinker. When debates over the ratification of the Constitution were at their apex, Hamilton wrote some 51 of the Federalist Papers. If he did nothing else, this would indelibly put the Hamiltonian stamp on the American republic. While his years as Treasury Secretary, and his young death, have gained much greater remembrance, his crucial role before the Republic was inaugurated bears recognition. Yet, Chernow also masterfully gives life to Hamilton's years as the first Treasury Secretary. By providing details as to how Hamilton's power coalesced, and how the size of his department grew, Chernow suggests that Hamilton, more so than any other figure knit together the federal branch of the American government in those early years.

Yet, Hamilton's meteoric rise would not be matched by a longevity of influence. By the end of his service to Washington the Secretary was a divisive public figure with little constituency to call his own. Chernow tries to make Hamilton's unpopularity a virtue, yet Hamilton often comes off as an alienating public figure. As Washington's star set, so too did Hamilton's, and with the President's retirement Hamilton was largely relegated to the sidelines of history. It is worth wondering whether the declining influence of Hamilton's latter years were as simply political as Chernow suggests. One is given the impression of an exhausted, and increasingly out-of-touch, mind. Hamilton seems perfectly suited for the fomentation of rebellion and the formation of government, but signally unequipped for the rigors of political life.

As Robert Caro's work on the life of President Lyndon Johnson has demonstrated, biographers continue to play a central role in the contemporary formation of historical memory. Such works are both products of and creative factors in our own social and political moment. As a product this is true of Chernow's work more than Caro's. How we feel about Alexander Hamilton as Chernow presents him, will be tied to our feelings about the American economic system. Time and again, Chernow reiterates the solid foundation which Hamilton helped create which would assist in ushering America into its modernized economic strength. This celebration is founded largely on the imperative of finance as a driver of economic logic. While the economic system may have been well tailored to address the vagaries of a changing world, perhaps Hamilton also helped drive the country towards that system in which wealth could accumulate not among the ancient aristocratic, but among the newly minted captains of industry. Certainly Chernow has been successful in providing a work which brings the life of Hamilton into the modern American moment. We are reminded that the life and efforts of Hamilton are with us still.

The Closing of the American Mind - Allan Bloom

Like it or not, Allan Bloom's work shook, at least momentarily, American higher education when it was released in 1987. Bloom takes to task American universities for a litany of sins - some perhaps a little more real than imagined. It must be stated that at times he feels like little more than a cantankerous, out of step, conservative, clinging to some idealized past. Bloom's critical perspective on the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s surely continue to earn this work many well-deserved aspersions. "How," we might ask, "is the view through that brilliant mind, from that most comfortable of positions in the most ivory of towers?" It is striking to reflect that in specifically calling higher education to task for failing to play a necessary role in the further development of the hoped-for perfectability of the social sphere, Bloom dismisses out of hand the efforts of so many people who might believe that they are working to embody and create exactly the type of examined morality he sees as so lacking.

That being said, the arguments of the book cannot be ignored. Bloom is a careful reader of many of the works which serve as the foundation of western culture. His knowledge was never in question (perhaps this is what caused so many to focus on his tone). It must be noted that many of the currents Bloom traced persist in higher education. While his approach may be reactionary and relatively intolerant (if such a thing is possible) he is right to recognize that much of the foundations of the American academy have been dismissed as no longer relevant to our contemporary context. Bloom recognizes that efforts in the pursuit of wisdom are all-too-frequently subsumed by a type of creeping relativism and unexamined pragmatism. At its core Bloom's work orbits around the questions, "what is the role of the University in democratic society? What ought it to be?" Bloom defends his conservative proclivities in charging the University to be specifically outside of the mainstream of society; to provide a balance to the tyranny of the social majority - whatever form that may take. In essence the university intellectual is meant to be a thoughtful and careful iconoclast. Better yet, the university should strive to help students explore their questions and desires to make sense of themselves and the world. For Bloom, this mission must be informed by a type of rigor and wisdom of experience which has been painstakingly developed through the ages. It is on this ground which the University's mission is supposedly founded.

Aspects of Bloom's critique remain timely - while his tone, dismissal of others, and inability to recognize different reservoirs of value, remain striking. The type of question Bloom is asking - are our universities properly serving their students and pushing them to develop themselves towards the ever-receding horizon of the good - is one that a healthy society will always ask of itself. Who is to educate the young? Who is to be responsible for their development? These should be issues at the forefront of public concern. Perhaps it is something which we could lend greater care to.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Beyond the University - Michael S. Roth

The retreat of higher education is, somewhat paradoxically, evident. The rhetoric which has come to ensconce American higher education centers on the ability of institutions to prepare young people for their place in the economy. (There is, it should be noted, inherently an aspect of class to this argument - if you are headed for the Ivy League your appropriate place in the economy is understood to be of a different kind than if you're headed to community college.) Such rhetoric is paradoxical - perhaps absurd - for it simultaneously draws the training received in higher education closer to economic concerns, while marginalizing the unique place of such institutions within both the social and economic sphere. If a college education is reduced to yet another form of job training, the mission of the University is obscured and its necessity is in question. On this account Universities have done themselves few favors. Inasmuch as the colleges are "servants of the market" the arena of higher education appears increasingly unwilling to question the logic which would marginalize it.

Into this gap steps President of Wesleyan College, Michael S. Roth. Roth's slim volume makes a passionate plea for that education which is specifically uneconomical: a liberal education. The preparation of the young for working is one thing; preparing them for living is something else entirely. It is the latter which Roth is concerned with, and which he finds increasingly lacking in American higher education. It is not only what students learn that is important; nor how they learn. Rather it is how their learning is integrated into their living - this is the foundation of a liberal education. Inasmuch as each of us participates in society, what is good for ourselves in our relation to others and the world is a question always worthy of our exploration. When Universities focus upon the narrowly conceived training of individuals they threaten the very fabric of the social contract. Roth calls for a renewed emphasis on the development of the whole individual.

The debates surrounding America's higher learning trace at least back to Jefferson and Franklin. There is little cause to suppose that this generation will provide a definitive answer to the questions who should teach the young, and how ought they to do it? However, the potential nonexistence of a simple, conclusive answer to such a question neither means that exploratory efforts are doomed, nor that we should abandon the quest. Asking tough questions is also what education is about. Roth suggests that the narrowing of American education risks breeding the narrowing of the American mind. To abandon the hope that our improvement as people and as a society rests beyond the increase of our material goods is to both ignore the past and do a disservice to the future.

Angels and Demons - Dan Brown

Once again, Robert Langdon is on the run. Personally this is my favorite of Brown's books and, admittedly, the second time I have read it. The timing was especially poignant as I was lucky enough to visit Rome this past summer. Remembering the West Ponente in St. Peters square, the Castel Sant'Angelo, the Pantheon dome and the Fountain of the Four Rivers is a joy and their striking beauty and effect come rushing back.

The issue with all of Brown's works are two types of pivotal moments. First are those in which an already occurred, and surely controllable event, would have to break for the villain's plans to come to fruition. Second, are those in which you can feel the story departing from the necessity of art/architecture/history to make leaps which hold the foundation of the plot together. I should state that there is absolutely zero wrong with this, as his works are fiction and, to my thinking, both fun and informative. However, you begin to see where these gaps occur when you've read a few of Brown's works.

The book is a nice homage to certain aspects of Rome, and it is a far cry from Ron Howard's movie, which is real bad. Reading this did make me excited for Brown's latest offering.