Nunc Dimittis

Nunc dimittis servum tuum, Domine, secundum verbum tuum in pace:
Quia viderunt oculi mei salutare tuum
Quod parasti ante faciem omnium populorum:
Lumen ad revelationem gentium, et gloriam plebis tuae Israel.
—“The Canticle of Simeon.”
What appeared obvious was therefore rendered problematical and the question remains: why do most … species contain approximately equal numbers of males and females?
—Stephen Jay Gould. “Death Before Birth, or a Mite’s Nunc dimittis.”
    The Panda’s Thumb: More Reflections in Natural History. 1980.
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Since last year the attention of most American liberals has been focused on the shenanigans of President Trump—but the Trump Show has hardly been the focus of the American right. Just a few days ago, John Nichols of The Nation observed that ALEC—the business-funded American Legislative Exchange Council that has functioned as a clearinghouse for conservative proposals for state laws—“is considering whether to adopt a new piece of ‘model legislation’ that proposes to do away with an elected Senate.” In other words, ALEC is thinking of throwing its weight behind the (heretofore) fringe idea of overturning the Seventeenth Amendment, and returning the right to elect U.S. Senators to state legislatures: the status quo of 1913. Yet, why would Americans wish to return to a period widely known to be—as the most recent reputable academic history, Wendy Schiller and Charles Stewart’s Electing the Senate: Indirect Democracy Before the Seventeenth Amendment has put the point—“plagued by significant corruption to a point that undermined the very legitimacy of the election process and the U.S. Senators who were elected by it?” The answer, I suggest, might be found in a history of the German higher educational system prior to the year 1933.

“To what extent”—asked Fritz K. Ringer in 1969’s The Decline of the German Mandarins: The German Academic Community, 1890-1933—“were the German mandarins to blame for the terrible form of their own demise, for the catastrophe of National Socialism?” Such a question might sound ridiculous to American ears, to be sure: as Ezra Klein wrote in the inaugural issue of Vox, in 2014, there’s “a simple theory underlying much of American politics,” which is “that many of our most bitter political battles are mere misunderstandings” that can be solved with more information, or education. To blame German professors, then, for the triumph of the Nazi Party sounds paradoxical to such ears: it sounds like blaming an increase in rats on a radio station. From that view, then, the Nazis must have succeeded because the German people were too poorly-educated to be able to resist Hitler’s siren song.

As one appraisal of Ringer’s work in the decades since Decline has pointed out, however, the pioneering researcher went on to compare biographical dictionaries between Germany, France, England and the United States—and found “that 44 percent of German entries were academics, compared to 20 percent or less elsewhere”; another comparison of such dictionaries found that a much-higher percentage of Germans (82%) profiled in such books had exposure to university classes than those of other nations. Meanwhile, Ringer also found that “the real surprise” of delving into the records of “late nineteenth-century German secondary education” is that it “was really rather progressive for its time”: a higher percentage of Germans found their way to a high school education than did their peers in France or England during the same period. It wasn’t, in other words, for lack of education that Germany fell under the sway of the Nazis.

All that research, however, came after Decline, which dared to ask the question, “Did the work of German academics help the Nazis?” To be sure, there were a number of German academics, like philosopher Martin Heidegger and legal theorist Carl Schmitt, who not only joined the party, but actively cheered the Nazis on in public. (Heidegger’s connections to Hitler have been explored by Victor Farias and Emannuel Faye; Schmitt has been called “the crown jurist of the Third Reich.”) But that question, as interesting as it is, is not Ringer’s; he isn’t interested in the culpability of academics in direct support of the Nazis, perhaps the culpability of elevator repairmen could as well be interrogated. Instead, what makes Ringer’s argument compelling is that he connects particular intellectual beliefs to a particular historical outcome.

While most examinations of intellectuals, in other words, bewail a general lack of sympathy and understanding on the part of the public regarding the significance of intellectual labor, Ringer’s book is refreshing insofar as it takes the opposite tack: instead of upbraiding the public for not paying attention to the intellectuals, it upbraids the intellectuals for not understanding just how much attention they were actually getting. The usual story about intellectual work and such, after all, is about just how terrible intellectuals have it—how many first novels, after all, are about young writers and their struggles? But Ringer’s research suggests, as mentioned, the opposite: an investigation of Germany prior to 1933 shows that intellectuals were more highly thought of there than virtually anywhere in the world. Indeed, for much of its history before the Holocaust Germany was thought of as a land of poets and thinkers, not the grim nation portrayed in World War II movies. In that sense, Ringer has documented just how good intellectuals can have it—and how dangerous that can be.

All of that said, what are the particular beliefs that, Ringer thinks, may have led to the installation of the Fürher in 1933? The “characteristic mental habits and semantic preferences” Ringer documents in his book include such items as “the underlying vision of learning as an empathetic and unique interaction with venerated texts,” as well as a “consistent repudiation of instrumental or ‘utilitarian’ knowledge.” Such beliefs are, to be sure, seemingly required of the departments of what are now—but weren’t then—thought of, at least in the United States, as “the humanities”: without something like such foundational assumptions, subjects like philosophy or literature could not remain part of the curriculum. But, while perhaps necessary for intellectual projects to leave the ground, they may also have some costs—costs like, say, forgetting why the Seventeenth Amendment was passed.

That might sound surprising to some—after all, aren’t humanities departments hotbeds of leftism? Defenders of “the humanities”—like Gregory Harpham, once Director of the National Endowment for the Humanities—sometimes go even further and make the claim—as Harpham did in his 2011 book, The Humanities and the Dream of America—that “the capacity to sympathize, empathize, or otherwise inhabit the experience of others … is clearly essential to democratic society,” and that this “kind of capacity … is developed by an education that includes the humanities.” Such views, however, make a nonsense of history: traditionally, after all, it’s been the sciences that have been “clearly essential to democratic society,” not “the humanities.” And, if anyone thinks about it closely, the very notion of democracy itself depends on an idea that, at base, is “scientific” in nature—and one that is opposed to the notion of “the humanities.”

That idea is called, in scientific circles, “the Law of Large Numbers”—a concept first written down formally two centuries ago by mathematician Jacob Bernoulli, but easily illustrated in the words of journalist Michael Lewis’ most recent book. “If you flipped a coin a thousand times,” Lewis writes in The Undoing Project, “you were more likely to end up with heads or tails roughly half the time than if you flipped it ten times.” Or as Bernoulli put it in 1713’s Ars Conjectandi, “it is not enough to take one or another observation for such a reasoning about an event, but that a large number of them are needed.” It is a restatement of the commonsensical notion that the more times a result is repeated, the more trustworthy it is—an idea hugely applicable to human life.

For example, the Law of Large Numbers is why, as publisher Nate Silver recently put it, if “you want to predict a pitcher’s win-loss record, looking at the number of strikeouts he recorded and the number of walks he yielded is more informative than looking at his W’s and L’s from the previous season.” It’s why, when financial analyst John Bogle examined the stock market, he decided that, instead of trying to chase the latest-and-greatest stock, “people would be better off just investing their money in the entire stock market for a very cheap price”—and thereby invented the index fund. It’s why, Malcolm Gladwell has noted, the labor movement has always endorsed a national health care system: because they “believed that the safest and most efficient way to provide insurance against ill health or old age was to spread the costs and risks of benefits over the biggest and most diverse group possible.” It’s why casinos have limits on the amounts bettors can wager. In all these fields, as well as more “properly” scientific ones, it’s better to amass large quantities of results, rather than depend on small numbers of them.

What is voting, after all, but an act of sampling of the opinion of the voters, an act thereby necessarily engaged with the Law of Large Numbers? So, at least, thought the eighteenth-century mathematician and political theorist the Marquis de Condorcet—who called the result “the miracle of aggregation.” Summarizing a great deal of contemporary research, Sean Richey of Georgia State University has noted that Condorcet’s idea was that (as one of Richey’s sources puts the point) “[m]ajorities are more likely to select the ‘correct’ alternative than any single individual when there is uncertainty about which alternative is in fact the best.” Or, as Richey describes how Condorcet’s process actually works more concretely puts it, the notion is that “if ten out of twelve jurors make random errors, they should split five and five, and the outcome will be decided by the two who vote correctly.” Just as, in sum, a “betting line” demarks the boundary of opinion between gamblers, Condorcet provides the justification for voting: Condorcet’s theory was that “the law of large numbers shows that this as-if rational outcome will be almost certain in any large election if the errors are randomly distributed.” Condorcet, thereby, proposed elections as a machine for producing truth—and, arguably, democratic governments have demonstrated that fact ever since.

Key to the functioning of Condorcet’s machine, in turn, is large numbers of voters: the marquis’ whole idea, in fact, is that—as David Austen-Smith and Jeffrey S. Banks put the French mathematician’s point in 1996—“the probability that a majority votes for the better alternative … approaches 1 [100%] as n [the number of voters] goes to infinity.” In other words, the point is that the more voters, the more likely an election is to reach the correct decision. The Seventeenth Amendment is, then, just such a machine: its entire rationale is that the (extremely large) pool of voters of a state is more likely to reach a correct decision than an (extremely small) pool voters consisting of the state legislature alone.

Yet the very thought that anyone could even know what truth is, of course—much less build a machine for producing it—is anathema to people in humanities departments: as I’ve mentioned before, Bruce Robbins of Columbia University has reminded everyone that such departments were “founded on … the critique of Enlightenment rationality.” Such departments have, perhaps, been at the forefront of the gradual change in Americans from what the baseball writer Bill James has called “an honest, trusting people with a heavy streak of rationalism and an instinctive trust of science,” with the consequence that they had “an unhealthy faith in the validity of statistical evidence,” to adopting “the position that so long as something was stated as a statistic it was probably false and they were entitled to ignore it and believe whatever they wanted to [believe].” At any rate, any comparison of the “trusting” 1950s America described by James by comparison to what he thought of as the statistically-skeptical 1970s (and beyond) needs to reckon with the increasingly-large bulge of people educated in such departments: as a report by the Association of American Colleges and Universities has pointed out, “the percentage of college-age Americans holding degrees in the humanities has increased fairly steadily over the last half-century, from little over 1 percent in 1950 to about 2.5 percent today.” That might appear to be a fairly low percentage—but as Joe Pinsker’s headline writer put the point of Pinsker’s article in The Atlantic, “Rich Kids Major in English.” Or as a study cited by Pinsker in that article noted, “elite students were much more likely to study classics, English, and history, and much less likely to study computer science and economics.” Humanities students are a small percentage of graduates, in other words—but historically they have been (and given the increasingly-documented decreasing social mobility of American life, are increasingly likely to be) the people calling the shots later.

Or, as the infamous Northwestern University chant had it: “That‘s alright, that’s okay—you’ll be working for us someday!” By building up humanities departments, the professoriate has perhaps performed useful labor by clearing the ideological ground for nothing less than the repeal of the Seventeenth Amendment—an amendment whose argumentative success, even today, depends upon an audience familiar not only with Condorcet’s specific proposals, but also with the mathematical ideas that underlay them. That would be no surprise, perhaps, to Fritz Ringer, who described how the German intellectual class of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth constructed an “a defense of the freedom of learning and teaching, a defense which is primarily designed to combat the ruler’s meddling in favor of a narrowly useful education.” To them, the “spirit flourishes only in freedom … and its achievements, though not immediately felt, are actually the lifeblood of the nation.” Such an argument is reproduced by such “academic superstar” professors of humanities as Judith Butler, Maxine Elliot Professor in the Departments of Rhetoric and Comparative Literature at (where else?) the University of California, Berkeley, who has argued that the “contemporary tradition”—what?—“of critical theory in the academy … has shown how language plays an important role in shaping and altering our common or ‘natural’ understanding of social and political realities.”

Can’t put it better.