Friday, September 24, 2010

Talking with David Brooks

Last week, I interviewed New York Times columnist David Brooks in advance of a lecture he's giving at leafy Elmhurst College on October 1. The Q and A--which focuses on religion and Brooks' intellectual hero (and Barack Obama's), the mid-century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr--is here .

Here's Brooks on church-shopping:
I remember during one of the Democratic primaries, I think two elections ago, every single candidate had switched denominations at one point. I think Wes Clark did it twice. Howard Dean did it because his church didn’t support a bike trail that he was supporting. Everyone was moving. That’s part of where we are. But I think the downside is consumer religion, where it’s all pretty thin and people are competing to fill the pews with whatever works in the market.

And here he is on religious literacy in the U.S.:
I’d say it’s pretty awful, but I’ve been places where it’s worse. When my oldest son was born in Belgium and we named him Joshua, I remember the doctor at the hospital assumed we were big U2 fans because of the Joshua Tree album. On the other hand, I’d met a business executive who had a son at Williams College. He was taking an art history course and they were studying the Renaissance and he noticed there were a lot of pictures of mothers with male children. He was appalled because they never showed a mother with a girl. It didn’t occur to him that these were all Madonnas and that child was a specific child. So there’s a lot of illiteracy out there.

I didn't get to ask him any questions about Sarah Palin, Rahm Emanuel, Mitch McConnell or Mark Shields. But I was absolutely relentless on the topic of epistemological modesty.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Gordon Wood, Office Decorator

This video from Book TV about Brown University historian Gordon Wood’s (three!) work spaces is a little like HGTV for the overeducated. Wood shows us how he organizes his home library (“Helter-skelter” is one category) and demonstrates how to rationalize effectively when your department boots you out of your office because it doesn’t have room for emeriti. (“There are some advantages,” he says of his alternate digs in the bowels of the university library. “There are no phones.”)

My favorite moment comes around 5:39 when Wood shows us the box of 5x8 note cards that became The Radicalism of the American Revolution. You can almost hear the gasps of thousands of junior American Studies faculty.

Next week: Gary Wills hems his drapes.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Quick Studies

Quick Studies, my new blog about life at leafy Elmhurst College, is online. Check it out here.

Human Joke Machine

The Chicago Sun-Times leads this morning with a story about a Northwestern AI researcher working on “machine-generated humor” and defending his work from critics like John McCain who don’t like federal funding for “joke machines.” Sadly, no mention is made of the original Human Joke Machine, a programming breakthrough familiar since at least the early 1960s to fans of the Dick Van Dyke Show. Its efforts were often crudely ineffective. Asked to produce a joke about horses, the HJM came up with this: If everyone owned a horse, this country would be a lot more stabilized.