NB - Six Pillars - being studied at Harvard


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This was sent to me by Roger Bissell. It is from Tal David Ben-Shachar to Nathaniel Branden, dated Feb 10, 2006. (There's no way to keep something like this quiet.)

Michael

Dear Nathaniel,

Hope you're doing well.

I'm still at Harvard, teaching in the psychology department. This semester my course is the largest at the university with 830 students (and still growing)--and I wanted to let you know that they're reading "The Six Pillars". Last year when I used it (had 380 students) the response to the book was overwhelmingly positive.

I miss you and hope to see you soon.

Best,

Tal

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This guy, Tal David Ben-Shachar, is really something!

In the short time he has been at Harvard, he's already teaching 20% of Harvard's undergraduates a subject that has been dismissed as "pop psychology" for years.

He even founded the Harvard Ayn Rand Club.

I have a feeling that the his results are the start of a small but much-needed academic overhaul that will spread to other colleges. I am highly pleased with his adoption of Six Pillars (with the results of that given in his email to Nathaniel).

I'm a fan of this guy already.

Michael

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To judge from the article, this course is what we used to call a mickey. It will entertain the students, and it might do some of them some lasting good, but it won't do anything for the academic prestige of the authors read, and, The Fountainhead notwithstanding, that's what this discussion has been all about.

Peter

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Pete,

I agree with you that there could be a danger of putting more store in this than it warrants, thus falling into sycophancy. However, I am a great believer in the theme-statement from the movie, Field of Dreams:

If you build it, they will come.

Tal David Ben-Shachar is building it. They are coming. One of the cornerstones he is now using is NB's Six Pillars. More are coming.

You may agree with me or not, but my prediction is that his approach is a bit more than merely building a mickey - and it is going to spread to other colleges. Once that happens, a solid academic reputation will be established whether people like it or not.

If colleges today can be loaded with ethnic studies and similar stuff that was not available when I was a student (early 70's), I see no reason for positive psychology to not grow and become standard.

I don't see this as the finish line at all. On the contrary, the starting pistol was just fired. But frankly, I can't think of any better starting gate than Harvard. You may not be impressed, but I am. (No offense intended here. Just merely stating different evaluations.)

Michael

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I just read the Harvard Crimson article and this seems to be a case study on how to blaze new trails, how to be an influential intellectual, how to apply philosophy and psychology.

My only worry is that he is not on a tenure track, apparently. I'm not sure why. But one suspects they have carefully limited how long he can teach before he gets booted and has to start all over again at a less respected place.

I get the sense that prestigious universities "use and discard" popular professors who are not "rigorous", which means Academically Correct: Get their hopes up once they get their PhD. when you know the department will ultimately give tenure to someone with the same lefty or pomo or super-specialist leanings as the existing faculty. Let them teach for a few years so that the students get -something- out of their humanities courses. I saw the same thing with Forrest McDonald. The most popular teacher at Brown and a conservative. The best teacher I had there by a country mile - he was brilliant and envied his popularity by the rest of the history department. They used him for a few years.

Then they kicked him down the stairs.

Universities are not a meritocracy.

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Phil,

In the sciences, Harvard seldom hires an assistant professor on the tenure track. They usually keep them for several years, then they let them go. Most of their senior faculty are hired in as senior faculty from other universities, where they have already established their reputations.

I have to disagree with your statement that academia is not a meritocracy. I think it is. However, what is considered meritorious, at most universities today, is research, not teaching. They typically reward researchers who do some teaching, not teachers who do some research. At least this is true, again, in the sciences, where I have first-hand knowledge. But I doubt that it is any different in the humanities. "Publish or perish" is ubiquitous.

Thanks,

Glenn

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Glenn,

I understand your point about there being a meritocracy based essentially on research.

I would still argue, though, that a proper meritocracy for someone who the students' parents are paying to teach their kids would have to be someone who excels in doing the function they are expecting. The meritocracy has to be -objective- based on performing the proper central function of the job (teacher). Also, the qeustion is whether the 'established reputations' are warranted. Whether the people most respected (especially in the humanities) for frequency in publishing, even though what they publish is pomo or nit-picking or relativist or false...or even just trivial and overspeialized (again, this is more the case in the humanities) can't be considered to on objective "merit" to be the best people. So on both counts, from what I've seen of the results of academic press stuff, I would still argue that in fields like philosophy, history, literature, etc the people in the full professorships are not heavily the product of meritocracy.

Some personal experience plays a role: When I spoke to tenured profs at Brown and Michigan during my undergrad and grad years I was way too often struck by how dumb or unoriginal or tunnel-visioned they were. And how they couldn't even understand my questions, let alone answer them adequately Then when I met Peikoff, stuck in an adjunct dive at Brooklyn Polytechnic and not likely to get tenure, and I took college and graduate level philosophy courses from him for a couple years after I had just gotten degrees from two "better schools", it struck me how he always grasped everything I asked him and how he could have eaten almost most of them for lunch intellectually (and not just on Objectivism).

On the point about how Harvard grants tenure, thanks for the insight (I assume you are familiar with that school)! Do you think that would be true of other top colleges?

Phil C

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