Saturday, April 04, 2015

Maybe it's time to let it go

This post contains the story of a grievance that I forgot for 40 years, but that recently has recurred to me, even without the help of a madeleine.  It's funny to me now, like something out of a novel involving a character who is remote from my present self, but I can also relive the feelings that I had at the time.

As background, I have recently completed a first draft of an article ("The Mapmaker's Dilemma in Assessing High-End Inequality") which I'll be presenting at a couple of conferences in May.  It's adapted and extracted from chapter 2 of my book-in-progress (when I have the time, which won't be for a couple of months), which currently bears the working title: "Enviers, Rentiers, and Arrivistes: What Literature Can Tell Us About High-End Inequality."  Not sure if I'll publish the Mapmaker piece separately.  I rather like it at the moment, and thus perhaps I should.  But I find its merits as a freestanding piece harder to judge than those of more standard work.  Also, I'm not sure where it ought to go, other than as part of a book chapter - it's not a conventional law review (or tax) article.

Anyway, it discusses a couple of philosophical issues, because one of the questions I'm asking is how well one can understand the issues posed by high-end wealth inequality if one is equipped only with a version of welfarism that in effect assumes we have "utilometers," the only acknowledged inputs to which are utility from own consumption of market goods plus leisure.  Big hint: I don't think this framework is even close to adequate in this particular setting, although it may work well enough in some other settings.

But on to the Proustian madeleine.  The point that, to get at these issues meaningfully, one must have at least in the back of one's mind some basic philosophical questions has served as a bit of a time machine for me, sending me back to my freshman year at Princeton in 1974.  I took a moral philosophy class that first semester, and we read the likes of Kant and Mill.  I recall hating Mill's Utilitarianism - the book not the philosophy - for such poorly reasoned passages as that on Socrates vs. the pig and the higher versus lower pleasures.  I actually discuss this a bit in Mapmaker, although I have mellowed and am more forgiving of Mill now than I was, say, in law school (when I wrote a scathing student paper about this).

But this brought back memories of another experience that I had in that philosophy class.  It involved the precept instructor who graded my first paper for that class, which was also the second paper I ever wrote as a college student.

OK, more background.  I come from an arts and academic family in which everyone, when I was growing up, was graded on how "smart" they were.  Even pets.  This made it high-stakes for me to feel as if I was excelling all the time.

I had thrived well enough in the Bronx High School of Science, although it was a true shark tank in the honors classes, and this had predisposed me to want to see how I matched up academically at Princeton.  I immediately thought: pretty darned well, which was good to know since, socially, I could acutely feel the disadvantages of being just 17 (and from a somewhat sheltered background) when almost every other freshman was at least 18.  My neighborhood schools had encouraged letting kids skip grades if they were doing well academically.  I might even have gone to college at age 16 (as had one girl in a family I knew) if my parents hadn't had the good sense to veto this.

Anyway, newly arrived at college, and with academic aspirations (I was planning to go into history), I decided to take a bunch of courses that required writing papers every two or three weeks.  My very first paper, while I don't recall what it was, got an A.  So that was reassuring.  (I don't claim to have been very mature or measured, or even in the least bit Zen, at age 17.)

Next up came a paper for the philosophy class, concerning Kant and the categorical imperative.  The professor was the great Thomas Scanlon.  But at Princeton the lecture classes are broken into smaller units that meet once a week, called precepts.  My precept instructor (and thus grader) was a graduate student in philosophy named M--- Hunt.  I probably shouldn't give the first name here, although a recent Google search for this individual proved unsuccessful.

I had what I thought was an interesting idea about the categorical imperative - and keep in mind, this is a freshman in week 3 or so of the fall semester, who has not to that point read any philosophy except for the assigned reading so far.  It occurred to me: There has to be a "level of generality" issue here (although I suspect I didn't have it labeled that crisply).  Kant says, the maxim you act on must be susceptible to being generalized without contradiction.  Suppose I am planning to go to the Burger King at 12 pm tomorrow.  If everyone went there at this exact time, it would be overcrowded.  So there's a contradiction.  But surely that's not what the categorical imperative really means.  It doesn't refute the idea: it shows that you have to think it through at the next level.

My intuition was: Silly though the Burger King hypothetical may be, there might actually be a fundamental issue here.  How generally must something be stated?  Might this be really important for figuring out what the categorical imperative could actually mean?

To this day, I think that's not bad for a 17 year old freshman, reading his first-ever philosophy texts in week 3 of the semester.  But when I got the paper back, Hunt had given it a C+.  My second college paper grade ever, and to my overheated young mind this wasn't much different from getting an F.

The scribbled explanation for the bad grade came maybe halfway down on page 1 of the paper (which was probably only 3 to 5 pages, at the most).  I had said something to the effect of, Surely the categorical imperative must have some at least implicit requirement of finding the appropriate level of generalization, whatever that might turn out to be.

But M --- Hunt scribbled in the margin, something to the effect of: No, there is no such thing as a principle of generalization in the categorical imperative.  And apparently if you're wrong, you get a C+.  This then remained the worst grade I ever got on an assignment in college or law school.

Being as young and unsure of myself as I still was, I was shaken by this grade.  My confidence wobbled a bit, but I was also angry, and I felt wronged.  The grade seemed unjust, and the ground on which it was given, mindless and dismissive.  But, at age 17, I didn't even consider going to talk to Hunt, or for that matter to Scanlon.

I decided I had to prove myself, to myself, academically.  This didn't mean working round the clock - I also wanted to have a social life, even though I was pretty much the only freshman out of 1,000 at Princeton who couldn't yet legally drink.  After all, my competitiveness applied to the social realm, too.   But in addition to taking papers seriously, I also went manga (as kids now would say) on my fall semester final exams, preparing with incredible thoughtfulness, and rigor, and yellow pads full of notes.  I got an A+ on two of my fall 1974 final exams (in history and political science - philosophy probably didn't have a final).

As it happens, the political scientist who gave me an A+ had one great theoretical contribution at that point in his career (although he later had more).  This was his claim that Lebanon's parliamentary structure for power-sharing was responsible for the wonderful peace prevailing there among all the competing ethnic and religious groups.  Oops (Lebanon blew up in 1975). So perhaps I had learned something well that wasn't all that well worth learning.  But no matter.

That was my peak as a student - fall of my freshman year.  After that, I was never as motivated again, either by grades or by pleasing the professors.  While I always did well academically, I tended to follow my own beats, so to speak, rather than trying to figure out what the professor wanted.  The impact on my grades was discernible but, as they were plenty good enough for my purposes, I didn't care.  From the standpoint of external validation, the twin A+'s had given me all the proof I felt I needed.

After the end of the fall 1974 semester, I didn't think about M--- Hunt for years.  But in writing my book chapter over the last couple of months, because I was back on ground covered in that class (albeit not Kant), the episode has recurred in my mind.  I still feel it was unjust, and I still hate M--- Hunt, although at least it's all quasi-funny to me now.

UPDATE: Okay, I admit it.  I don't really hate her anymore.  That just felt like a good ending when I was writing this piece.

No comments: