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8 April, 2004

The ‘F’ word strikes again, or the lumpers strike


The economist next door and I got into it this morning because he used the f word. I replied that it wasn’t an economic system, and that there was a very good argument for it not being a system at all. I said that if he wanted to talk about manorialism, that was pretty much economic, but that the feudal thing was an arrangement (or series of arrangements) between members of a warrior nobility. As it went on, I realized we were in the middle of a classic lumper-splitter argument. He claimed to be looking for similarities, while I will always look for the exceptions — and with feudalism, it’s all exceptions. He brought up an author I’d never heard of, and about whom the economist knew nothing, I brought up Duby, Ganshof, and Brown, all strangers to the economist, and we had to agree to disagree. I dunno — I just am not very good at making those big, overarching statements without documentation. That, and I like to know that I’m comparing apples to apples in terms of using words like “class.” Oddly enough, the conversation came out of my trying to justify extra credit for attending a free dinner to learn more about world poverty, sponsored by some of my colleagues. His justification went something like, “but isn’t there poverty and hunger and war in the stuff you cover?” Of course there is … I just don’t know that it’s a productive use of class time to discuss even the very real similarities between the devastation wrought by the 30 Years’ War and that wrought by war and drought in the Horn of Africa. That just seems to me more of a PoliSci or Econ or even Philosophy kind of discussion.

It’s also the kind of thing that drives David Horowitz crazy. I don’t supposed he’d really be pleased to have anecdotal advice that disagrees with his theory on liberals in the classroom. I’m the most liberal (pretty much the only liberal) among my grad school cohort. Most of them are employed, and none of them hide their conservatism. Another colleague who just got a TT job is also pretty damned conservative, but I won’t say who it is till he mentions it on his blog. Moreover, I think the man’s insane if he thinks students won’t use political discrimination as a new way to work the system. They already do. Students frequently use essay exams and papers to rant (coherently, if one is fortunate) about issues barely related to the assignment. If they receive a low grade (in my class, any essay that has no thesis and/or does not address the question is going to get a pretty low grade), they assume it’s because I didn’t like their views. Me, I think that an essay purported to be on the effects of the World Wars on women’s and minority civil rights and socioeconomic status should not be five pages of how women’s rights are bad for society, though it’s ok that black people get to vote now. I got that paper once. Really. As for the report of the student who wrote on “Why Saddam Hussein is a War Criminal” rather than “Why George Bush is a War Criminal,” I have to say that, if the assignment really exists (I can’t find any citations that don’t go back to Mr. Horowitz or Students for Academic Freedom), it sounds ill-judged. That said, it’s for a criminal justice class — if the idea of the assignment were to compare the actions of the Bush White House with the standards of international law or with the actions of other people accused of war crimes by those same standards, it seems perfectly vaild. The student’s paper doesn’t fulfill the assignment. Perhaps he should have addressed the assigned question but included all the examples he could find that prove George Bush is not a war criminal. If he’d done that, his argument for political discrimination might hold some water. It’s good to compare apples to apples.

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