November 25, 2013

The Bay Song Book (1640) Auctioned for a record-breaking $14.2 million

After the American Century 

On 26 November Sotheby's auctioned off a copy of The Bay Psalm Book, which was the first book published in what became the United States of America, in 1640. The timing of the sale two days before Thanksgiving seemed well-chosen, as most Americans associate that holiday with the first settlers of Massachusetts. (However, the first such Thanksgiving dinner was celebrated by the Pilgrims in Plymouth, not the Puritans who produced the book, but only landed in Boston in 1630.) 

To produce this book, the Puritans had to purchase a printing press and paper in London, at a time when they might have spent money on horses, millstones, or other practical necessities.This was just ten years after they first arrived and founded Boston, and four years after they established Harvard, to train clergy.

The Bay Song Book was a new, metrical translation of the psalms. The Puritan settlers included a number of scholars who knew both Hebrew and Greek, and they were determined to have a translation that was close to the original texts. The book also expressed their sense of the unpredictability of God. For example, at one point their translation ran:

The Lord will come and He will not
Keep silent and speak out.

Later generations found such passages contradictory, but they are impressive when sung to the melody provided by the Psalm Book.

The book at Sotheby's auction fetched a higher price than any other American book, ever, and more than even a Gutenberg Bible. The most expensive US book, previously, was John James Audubon's Birds of America, which sold for $11.5 million. This high value is not due to the psalm book's quality as an example of the printer's art, for there were many small errors in the first edition. Nor was the Bay Psalm Book considered particularly valuable in the first years after it was printed. Rather, it was constantly in use, and most copies of the first edition were literally worn out. 

As a result, only 11 of 1700 copies from the first edition still exist, and almost all of these are in major libraries that will never sell them. Quite possibly, the one sold by Boston's Old South Church (which has another copy that it will keep), will be the last one ever sold at public auction, unless, of course, someone discovers one more in their attic. If you find one, do not toss it in the trash, no matter how battered, because this copy sold for $14.2 million. 

November 09, 2013

Technology: The Machine in the Garden, 50th Anniversary

 After the American Century

Remarks at MIT celebrating the fiftieth anniversary 
of the publication of
Leo Marx’s The Machine in the Garden


I first heard about The Machine in the Garden when a freshman at Amherst College in 1964. I saw it reviewed in the local newspaper, and I went out and bought a copy in hard cover, as a Christmas present for my father. He was interested in the history of technology, but I was not, or so I thought. I did not consider reading it myself, until I had a course with Leo Marx the following year. 

Amherst prides itself on a low student-faculty ratio and small classes. But Professor Marx’s survey of American literature was so popular that he taught in the largest lecture room on campus. About 150 students took the course every year, which meant that about half of all the Amherst student body chose to take it. He lectured on the Puritans, natural depravity, attempts to define "what is an American" from Crévecoeur onwards, the pastoral dream of America, the madness of Ahab in Moby Dick, Thoreau's theory of civil disobedience, and Whitman's barbaric yawp heard over the rooftops of the world. For those of us taking the course, this literature often seemed to be a meta-commentary on our times. The generals in the Pentagon were our Ahabs, the leaders of the Civil Rights and anti-war movements our Thoreaus, and Bob Dylan was our version of Whitman’s barbaric yawp. Our best hope, it seemed, was to survive the coming apocalypse as the Ishmaels of our generation. This was not the thrust of Professor Marx's course, I hasten to add, which was a most inspiring and coherent set of lectures on nineteenth century literature.  I then bought a second copy of The Machine in the Garden, by then in paperback. Reading it, I could hear Leo’s wonderfully engaging voice, which at times has an almost hypnotic quality when he reads from and explicates literature. The survey course made such an impression that his seminars were oversubscribed, and I was one of the lucky 20 who managed to get into one of them.

When each Amherst class graduated, the custom was to select a faculty member as an honorary member of the class. Shortly before graduation the faculty member selected gave a final lecture to the entire class in the College chapel. My class of 1968 selected Leo Marx, and he lectured on technology in American society, with considerable reference to Lewis Mumford’s Technics and Human Development, which had appeared the previous year. I cannot claim to recall his argument in detail, but it linked the themes of  The Machine in the Garden with sociology and philosophy, notably Martin Heidigger’s understanding that the essence of technology lies in the mind not the machine. The tensions analyzed in The Machine and the Garden were not new, but had emerged in antiquity, as with Mumford’s example was the building of the pyramids. Classical references were also in Leo’s book, notably his discussion of the emergence of the pastoral genre in ancient Greece and Rome and its re-emergence in early modern Britain.

Let me draw a few conclusions based on these Amherst years. Before its publication, Leo’s book developed to some degree through his teaching. Many close readings of particular authors were presented and no doubt refined in front of his students before the volume itself appeared. Through the process of teaching, it seems, Leo found compelling ways to make his argument. The ideas themselves had first been nurtured at Harvard in the 1940s, where he studied with F O Matthiessen and Perry Miller, and where he was Henry Nash Smith’s TA. But he reworked his dissertation for over a decade. He was not forced to rush into print in order to gain tenure, as is the unhappy practice today. This is a great book partly because it was closely linked to teaching and because its author was able to give it time. 

My copy of The Machine in the Garden went with me to the University of Minnesota, where Leo had once taught, and where Alan Trachtenberg [who spoke just before I did] was one of his students. His former colleagues recalled him fondly, particularly Barney Bowron, who taught me much about late nineteenth century American literature. The Machine in the Garden was highly regarded at the Center for American Studies, and I found it useful not only in courses but also in framing my PhD thesis. Only in graduate school did I fully understand that this book was quite interdisciplinary. At Amherst the combination of history, literature, fine art, and the social sciences had seemed quite natural, but at Minnesota the faculty at these departments did not always share a commitment to interdisciplinarity. Notably, the New Criticism was still strong in the English Department, and I found that I had to defend the “myth and symbol” approach and to find arguments for the practice of American Studies itself.  To my surprise, I discovered many arguments along these lines in The Machine in the Garden, in paragraphs that had not seemed so important when I was an undergraduate. I more fully understood its importance in shaping the development of the field of American Studies. It offered a model for how to combine sweeping analysis with close readings of texts, including literature, political speeches, government reports, and much more. It was genuinely interdisciplinary, drawing on classics, history, psychology, philosophy, popular culture, and  fine art, even as it kept the main focus on literature.

By the middle 1970s when I was out of graduate school, academic fashions were changing rapidly. The field of American Studies was going through a transformation that emphasized social history more than literature and that focused on racial injustice, class tensions, and gender inequality.  These matters were not excluded from the American Studies I had known at Amherst, and it has always seemed to me that they were very much part of the tradition of American Studies that Leo represented. Nevertheless, each academic generation seems to establish itself by attacking those who went before. The so-called “myth and symbol school,” which in fact never formally existed or identified itself by that name, came under attack. This is not the place to rehearse the debates of the 1970s and 1980s. Suffice it to say that while it is true that the book might have included such writers as Willa Cather or Ralph Ellison, their addition would not have undermined or compromised the argument, but rather showed its strengths. There is an enormous difference between leaving someting out because it does not fit a line of argument and leaving something out because not all of American literature can be discussed in a single book. In any case, The Machine in the Garden has outlasted its critics, most of whom  are little remembered today except by specialists. It remains in pint, and people continue to cite it today. It is so well-known that other books refer to it in their very titles. In 1994 appeared, The Garden in the Machine (Princeton), in 2004 The Machine in Neptune’s Garden (Watson Science), and in 2001 The Garden in the Machine: A Field Guide to Independent Films about Place.  The journalist Joel Garreau has written an essay, "The Machine, the Garden, and Paradise" (1991). There is also a gothic/darkwave musical duo who call themselves “The Machine in the Garden”. No doubt there are more examples.

Throughout my academic life both Leo and his book have preceded me. When I went to Spain on a Fulbright, I found that Leo had been there lecturing the year before, and The Machine in the Garden  was a celebrated work. When I went for a year to The Netherlands, I found that he was friends with several people there, and that he had apparently lectured at all their universities. He had also spent a Fulbright himself in Britain, and he was well-known in Germany. Furthermore, Leo spent enough of his childhood in France to speak that language. It is difficult to find a European professor of American literature who has not read The Machine in the Garden. I could give many more examples, but one final one. A month ago I sat down at a random table in an airport restaurant waiting for my flight. At the next table a Finnish woman was talking about a lecture she was going to give in Stockholm about ecology and literature. It turned out that one of the first books cited in her paper was The Machine in the Garden.

When I bought that first edition for my father fifty years ago, I could never have imagined how much it would come to mean for me, for American Studies, and for the history of technology. As environmental concerns become more urgent, it is also being rediscovered by a new generation of scholars in other fields. It remains useful in my research and teaching. A colleague at the University of Texas told me that the new graduate students are quite interested in it. One of my classmates from Amherst, Gordon Radley who has a high position at Lucas Films, tells me that The Machine in the Garden has been influential in the formation of some of their motion pictures. If a comprehensive study were done of this book's influence, many more such stories would come to light.

After half a century of prominence, The Machine in the Garden has become an important part of  American culture. It is one of those rare books that is, at the same time, a primary source and a secondary source.  We read it both as one of the highest achievements of American Studies in its first two decades, and as a compelling meditation on the place of technology in American society. 

November 02, 2013

Education: Danish Universities Need to Learn from the International Competition

After the American Century

The Danish Ministry of Research, which funds university education, is determined to "reform." To do so, it has appointed a committee to make proposals about how to improve the universities. Unfortunately, while each member of this committee is probably a reasonable choice, the group as a whole lacks breadth and international perspective. The committee does not have a single humanist and even more remarkably, not a single scientist. One member of the committee comes from the University of Bergen, but given that Norwegian universities resemble those in Denmark, this does not make the committee very international.

According the the London Times' ranking, neither Norway nor Denmark has even one university in the world's top 116. The top Danish university is the engineering school, ranked 117, and the top Norwegian institution is Oslo, ranked 185. All such surveys in recent years have concluded that the best universities in the world are in the United States, Britain, and Australia, and there is a sharp difference between those in the top twenty or so and the next twenty. Universities ranked lower than 100 are all far behind the world's elite.

One might think the Danish government would put at least one person from the world's elite institutions on the committee. There are Danes abroad who work at these top institutions. There are also expatriates living in Denmark who received their education at such schools. But none of this expertise will be on the committee. Of course, members of the committee have visited some of these elite schools, but a visit, even one lasting a semester, will not provide the same kind of insight as studying for a degree in such a place, much less being a permanent part of the faculty.

The committee is narrow in yet another way: most of them are closely associated with Copenhagen University (currently ranked 150) and they live in the same part of Denmark. (There are some who view Copenhagen as a fossilized institution because it hires much of its faculty from its own graduates.) Three of the five Danish universities are not represented at all.

No one on this committee has the daily experience of being at one of the world's best universities, and as a group they are not likely to think outside the narrow, claustrophobic and insular box administered in Copenhagen. They will likely write a report to the liking of the Minister, who has strong views, but himself does not have enough education to be hired for an entry level position by any university. That said, he is streets ahead of the political clowns who preceded him.

If a major corporation wanted to research a problem, it would not create such a homogeneous group, with no scientists, no humanities, almost no one from outside Copenhagen, and no one from the world's best institutions.
Denmark invests  a good deal in education. However, it has a problem balancing quantity and quality. It wishes to educate a high proportion of people at university, and none of them charge tuition. This makes it quite expensive. At the same time, in these egalitarian societies there is a resistance to either establishing hierarchies or to rejecting candidates. The desire for democratization of higher education tends to water down quality, because no one likes to set up barriers to entry.

Denmark has five universities and one technical university. All are public institutions, all faculty work to the same wage scale, and students receive the same amount in scholarship funding. This egalitarian approach has much in its favor, of course, but it does not necessarily push either faculty or students to do their best. The state rewards universities for quantity production of candidates, departments receive money each time a student passes an exam or completes a degree. Whether the student has a high or low grade point average makes no difference.

In almost all educational systems, the most talented students usually do well, and the occasional genius is not really produced by the system. Getting the other 90% of the students to learn is the challenge. And here, egalitarianism and the monetary incentives to admit and pass as many as possible have encouraged Danish institutions to lower standards.

For example, in Denmark receiving a BA, no matter how poor the grades, entitles a student to go on to an MA, regardless of talent, motivation, or achievement. Automatic admission to graduate studies is hardly the norm at the world's best universities. Admitting all BAs to study for the MA is a wasteful and pointlessly egalitarian approach to education. If students knew that they had to do well at the BA level in order to go on to the MA, both undergraduate and the graduate education would be improved. And this would not cost the state more money, but less.

At the level of individual courses the Danish system is also lax. There is no requirement that students attend classes, and they do not even need to be inside the country during term. I have had students go abroad for weeks in the middle of term or miss the first week to go skiing. Since class participation cannot be counted at all in determining grades, students need not give oral presentations, nor can teachers give mid-term exams that count toward the final grade. In most courses, grades are determined entirely by a paper or exam at the end of term.  Contrast this with any of the top universities in the United States, where class participation counts and teachers have considerable freedom in developing and using various means of assessment. In Denmark, if a student seldom comes and never says anything, it has no consequences.  Passivity is therefore widespread.

Furthermore, Danish students have the right to re-examination if they fail at no cost, and they  can take any exam three times, even if they did nothing but turn in a blank sheet of paper on the first and second attempts.  If they fail three times, they can petition for the right to retake the exam (or turn in the paper) a fourth time. Contrast this with top universities around the world, which often do not have re-examination at all but tell students to retake the course, or charge a fee for a second (and usually final) attempt to pass a course.

When Danish students take a term abroad in Britain or the United States, they all come back saying that they had to work much harder there. None fail their courses either, because they know that they cannot take those exams over again.

Danish universities also have problems in the way faculty are recruited, retrained, and rewarded,  and they could learn much from the international competition. There are foreigners like myself who have been in Denmark for years, who understand alternative systems, and who could make constructive suggestions for improvements. However, my experience is that no one listens to such suggestions. Danes seem congenitally unable to hear comments from outsiders.

In short, if the Danes really want to improve their universities, they do not need to spend vast additional sums of money. But they do need to learn from the best practices at the best universities. They need to demand from students attendance, participation, and real attempts to complete courses. They need to set better norms for behavior and set higher standards for admission to the MA. They need to open the PhD to more students and learn how to make use of PhDs in the broader labor market.

These are just some of the things that Danish universities could change to raise their international ranking. It is unfortunate that their system is so centralized and so controlled by bureaucrats, especially since most of the staff of the Ministry itself do not even have a PhD much less any teaching experience or academic publications. It seems unlikely that any new ideas will emerge from the Ministry.  One can only hope that somehow its homogeneous committee will develop an international perspective. 

November 01, 2013

Education: Literacy - OECD World Rankings puts US at bottom

After the American Century

The OECD has tested 166,000 people and ranked nations according to their levels of literacy.  Among persons aged 16 to 24 the results are surprising. The United States is only ranked 20th out of 22, while Finland is in the first position.  It would appear that the Bush "no child left behind" program might have been renamed "a whole system left behind."

How much difference is there between the top and the bottom? Japan is second and Italy twenty-first. The OECD concluded that a Japanese high-school graduate has literacy skills comparable to an Italian university graduate. This would strongly suggest that the distance between Finland (1) and the US (20) or  Britain (18) is just as alarmingly great.

It is also somewhat surprising to see a wider spread in the rankings of the Nordic nations than is usual in such studies, with Sweden at 7, Denmark 13, and resource-rich and debt-free Norway at 16. Why  should Denmark and Norway fall behind former Soviet bloc nations such as Estonia (5), Poland (8),  the Czech Republic (9), and the Slovak Republic (12)?

Literacy, aged 16-24
1 Finland
2 Japan
3 South Korea
4 Netherlands
5 Estonia
6 Australia
7 Sweden
8 Poland
9 Czech Republic
10 Germany
11 Austria
12 Slovak Republic
13 Denmark
14 France
15 Canada
16 Norway
17 Ireland
18 Spain
19 England/N Ireland
20 United States
21 Italy
22 Cyprus

The OECD also compiled a similar table for all adults. Many countries are almost at the same rank in both tables, especially at the top, notably Finland, Japan, and the Netherlands. A comparison also reveals that compared to the older generation the younger people are falling behind in Canada, Norway and the United States. In contrast, youth has improved on their parents and grandparents in South Korea, France, and Spain.

Literacy, all adults
1 Japan
2 Finland
3 Netherlands
4 Sweden
5 Australia
6 Norway
7 Estonia
8 Slovak Republic
9 Flanders (Belgium)
10 Canada
11 Czech Republic
12 Denmark
13 South Korea
14 England/N Ireland
15 Germany
16 United States
17 Austria
18 Poland
19 Ireland
20 France
21 Spain
22 Italy

Literacy is a fundamental indicator for the ability to get and hold a good job, and it correlates well with lifetime income. Poor literacy in a nation harms its competitiveness.