Saturday, December 31, 2016

Jane Jacobs is a Model Public Intellectual

I commend the life of Jane Jacobs as a model of thought about civilization, especially as it is made in cities.

She is also a pretty good model of an engaged public intellectual.  She was never an academic, which in her case probably helped her have a broader view than academic specialists can afford.  She was a writer, trained in specialist magazines (Iron Age, Vogue, and Architectural Forum) and in writing war propaganda.  This was excellent training for close observation of reality, and of writing to be understood by the educated lay public.  She was also free from the standard academic models of city design and development, which allowed her to develop paradigm-shifting insights.

I have often thought that I have an advantage as an intellectual because I am a liberal arts college teacher, rather than a research university scholar.  I need to read broadly to teach many subjects, and I have the freedom to do so because my main job is not producing specialist research quickly.

I plan to re-read Jacobs' urban trilogy, beginning with The Death and Life of the Great American Cities, as preparation to write my own book about why people choose their neighborhoods in Louisville.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Obama vs. Coates on the Arc of History

The Atlantic has an important cover story by Ta-Nehisi Coates on the Obama presidency

In the opening editorial of that issue, editor Jeffrey Goldberg contrasts the view of history of the two men.

President Obama often quotes Martin Luther King the "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."

Mr. Coates, by contrast, believes that the arc of the universe "bends, in fact, toward chaos." He elaborates that he does not mean history tends toward meaninglessness, but rather that it is open, and subject to disruption.  He regards Obama's election as "a sign of chaos, of disruption."

Still, on this matter I am with Obama, and King, and Theodore Parker, the Unitarian minister from whom the metaphor originally came:  "I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one ... But from what I see I am sure it bends toward justice."