Reflections on David Gelernter’s 20 Thoughts

Conor Friedersdorf has a wonderful, wide-ranging interview with Yale computer scientist David Gelernter in The Atlantic this week. Friedersdorf is right to say that the Washington Post’s characterization of Gelernter as an anti-intellectual is wrong (and frankly bizarre). Gelernter is more accurately described as a talented polymath and a brilliant critic of American higher education, culture, and society.

The most interesting part of this piece is the list of 20 thoughts Gelernter compiled when given an open forum. His ideas are interesting and worth your time to read in full– though I was most interested in his first ten and last one. For the sake of brevity, I have excerpted some of his musings here and will try to provide context and counterpoints where appropriate.

1. Letting toxic partisanship heal.  Everyone knows that we live in politically superheated times; partisanship feels more bitter and more personal than it ever has in my lifetime.

There are many reasons, but here is one: we all know that faith in the Judeo-Christian religions is dramatically weaker than it used to be. But human beings are religious animals, and most will find an alternative if the conventional choices are gone.  The readiest replacement nowadays for lost traditional religion is political ideology…

Thus, the collapse of traditional religion within important parts of the population is one cause of our increasingly poisoned politics. Yet it doesn’t have to be this way. Turn back to the generation after the Second World War. The collapse of religion is well underway, but there is another alternate religion at hand: art…

Among much else, it helped politics go down easier. (Only a little easier; but every bit helped.)  Other things did too, of course; and art, as always, was its own reward. But we miss something if we don’t see how the religion of art took pressure off politics.

Nowadays it’s mostly gone. But it doesn’t have to be. Art itself is the reason to bring art back to center stage. But some of the merely incidental benefits might be enormous.

I often find that people are very interested in healing toxic partisanship when they feel their side has the upper-hand. Liberals called for it in ’08. Conservatives call for it now. It rarely works.

Gelernter goes in a different direction. Rather than simply lament the collapse of Judeo-Christian faith, as the right so-often does, he worries about our replacement for it: politics. Admitting that this process was well underway in his own youth, Gelernter is right in that our vibrant artistic expression helped focus our criticisms, fears, hopes, and dreams in more expressive and less polemic ways in the past. What he fails to mention is why art has seemingly receded into the background of American life. For one, it is inaccurate to say that art has collapsed– it is alive and well across the nation. But art is no longer a focus of the media. Rather than talk about emerging artists, their critiques on society, or the simple beauty of their work, art has been discarded as elitist entertainment, replaced in the media by things that generate more short-term profit. Our highest profile arts are watching rich people bicker and feud (and sleep around) on reality television. The musical arts retains some of its place in society– there really are a lot of talented artists today– but the other arts have been discarded for the Kardashians and Housewives of America. Our Andy Warhols don’t create eye-catching social commentary– they are vapid blowhards like Milo who do nothing but find the vilest way to say tired old things.

Who killed art? Capitalism, for one. Many talented artists toil in obscurity, same as it ever was. Their coverage and elevation have been stripped away by the myriad of emerging forms of entertainment disrupted by our digital revolution. Conservative politicians also played a part. They have defunded and ridiculed the arts my entire lifetime (and many years before my life began). Indeed, President Chester Cheetah is pushing to eliminate funding for the arts right now. Take capitalism and basic GOP fund nothing practices and merge them with the conservative ethos that the arts are “namby-pamby,” liberal nonsense and you get a society that does not value, promote, learn, or appreciate the arts. To disastrous effects.

2. Beauty is objective.

Take any civilization, ask for its artistic masterpieces; today, they are almost guaranteed to be valuable all over the world. There’s almost nothing less subjective than the sense of beauty.

I am sympathetic to this idea. But it only really works in the eyes of the unbigoted. To see the objective beauty of art, or humanity, requires the sort of lens few possess. To appreciate something, we typically need to understand it.

3. Yale is building two new “colleges” or dormitories, modeled on Oxford and Cambridge colleges. The buildings are gothic—but copied not from the originals but from early-20th-century Yale gothic, mainly by James Gamble Rogers (an eminent architect who deserves to be studied alongside Pope and White and Lutyens, and will be someday).

Students love the Rogers colleges, and I like the university noticing the fact.  They love quads.

But if Yale had turned on its brain, it could have had quads and something exciting and new, instead of something that tries so hard to be boring and old.  Yale has mostly had enormous success over the years when it was willing to take new architecture seriously.

Take a chance, dammit…

Gelernter is explicitly talking about architecture here, but his wider criticism on American society is hard to miss. The nostalgia we have for the great things of the past is stifling the creativity and innovation essential to a civilization in the ascent. I’m a historian. I live in a mid-19th-century brick Italianate. I understand the pull of the old and the beautiful more than most. But our backward view is destructive. Copies of Gothic copies may sate your appetite for more of the same, but there are enormous diminishing returns. Making America more great requires taking chances on building something new. From a reimagined idea of the college quad to a more imaginative construction of who is a “real American.” 

Take a chance, dammit.

4. It used to be that nearly all American children were reared as Christians or Jews. In the process they were given comprehensive ethical views, centering on the Ten Commandments and the “golden rule,” and God’s requirements as spelled out by the prophet Micah: “Only to do justice, and love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.”

As a result American were not paragons; but they had a place to start.  Today many or most children in the intellectual or left-wing part of the nation are no longer reared as Christians or Jews. What ethical laws are they taught? Many on the left say “none, and it doesn’t matter”—a recipe for one of the riskiest experiments in history.

The left, and my colleagues in the intelligentsia, need to come to terms with this issue. Rear your children to be atheists or agnostics—fine. But turning them loose on the world with no concept of right and wrong is unacceptable. You might well say that Jewish and Christian ethical teaching managed to accomplish remarkably little; but if you believe that, and propose to teach your children even less than the bare bones that proved (you say) so inadequate, then your irresponsibility is obvious. Choose the ethical code you like, but choose something and make sure they know it.

Complete and utter nonsense. Perhaps the elites of Yale are drastically different than the elites from the top tier public universities I have worked at (doubtful, given how many of them were trained in the same halls), but this has not been my experience at all. I know many “elites” on the left. Most of them were raised in the Judeo-Christian tradition and then raise their children in Jewish and Christian households. Beyond that, I know quite a few raised atheist and agnostic who have strong moral codes based on philosophy and the Enlightenment principles of freedom and equality. They are among the most caring, thoughtful, and ethical people I have ever met. When will the intellectuals of the right give up this absurd notion that liberals (and liberals alone) have undermined religion (and thus morality) in this country?

I also know many on the right, elite and “common” alike, reared in the surly bonds of Christianity. Some are quite moral. Many others have used their ethical code to inflict hate and violence (or excuse it in the name of their lord). Most, much like the liberal religious people I know, are just fair-weather faithful. Happy to sit in the pew and hear familiar stories that reaffirm their life choices, hostile to spiritual challenges, and disinterested in doing the hard work their faith truly demands.

Blame modernity. Blame education. Blame consumerism. Blame partisan politics. But knock-off the idea that it was some liberal conspiracy that knocked religion down. Organized religion was undone by its own excesses and theological weakness. There are still many Americans who turn to spirituality– many of them simply don’t see the point in joining or supporting institutions that fail to deliver on their promise.

5. Long ago, I wrote a novel (also a history) about the 1939 NY World’s Fair.  My parents had been there; I’d been at the 1964 Fair as a boy. At the time (mid ‘90s) I believed the party line: it would be crazy to have a new world’s fair. I was wrong. A modern nation can’t operate unless the science world and the public are on speaking terms.

The public must pay the bills, and tolerate the long-term planning, that substantial science and technology projects require…

I love World’s Fairs. The 1898 Chicago Columbian Exposition featured prominently in my dissertation (and an old New York Times photo of the “marvel” of that fair, the Ferris Wheel, hangs proudly in my living room).


They were not just huge moments that showcased our technological and scientific advancement– they were also moments where the brightest minds in religion and the humanities came together to talk and discuss the future. We are willing to lose millions (maybe billions) of dollars on hosting sporting events, but won’t put a penny towards intellectual engagement and thought provoking demonstrations.

This is what happens when a society only cares about what profits can be made on things like advertisements rather than showing the world (including our own people) what progress is being made in every discipline.

bloomAllan Bloom

6. Our cultural revolution, roughly 1945-1970, created modern America—created the nation and the world we live in. It happened because of a strange circumstance: Two large social changes (separate though related) happened at almost the same time and their effects overlapped… The effect, loosely and broadly speaking, was to move the nation decidedly to the left.  But no conspiracy created it…

Two big waves flowing in the same direction:

First, the major American colleges, run heretofore by WASPs, opened their doors, after the Second World War, to all sorts of people—first, Jews. A decade later, blacks and women…

Second, a growing belief that college, like high school, was good for everyone—and the “professionalization” of all sorts of fields where a BA used to be plenty: the rise of business schools, the growing importance of education schools and of journalism schools were three of the most important aspects of this big change…

The unbigoted-colleges revolution, which pushed colleges to the left and helped detach them from their old WASP bases, together with the professionalization and college-for-everyone revolution, which increased colleges’ reach and influence, were post-war revolutions that coincided, swamping American culture. The result was a 1970s America vastly different from the 1940s version, dominated by academic ideas.  Thus “political correctness,” e.g., is an issue not only in academic promotions but in naming Navy warships (!).  The new version had good and bad aspects, but whether you’re pleased, horrified, or neutral, there’s no way to miss the huge importance of these events. But most historians have missed them.

Most seem intent on ignoring the Cultural Revolution—or tying it to a strange concoction of Vietnam, rock music, drugs, birth-control, the Civil Rights movement and so on. Yet if Vietnam or rock had never existed, if Civil Rights had been fought out in the 1930s or had only grown serious in 1975, a Cultural Revolution would still have transformed this nation during the post-World War II generation.

Good god– the fucking Allan Bloom defense fused with a “salt of the Earth,” Mike Rowe-style assault on wide-scale higher education. Jews, blacks, and women didn’t liberalize the academy in the post-war era. It happened a generation earlier– seriously, go look at what women were teaching in history departments across the nation in the late 19th century. The reactionaries of the post-WWI academy were the aberration, not the radicals of the late 19th century or the revolutionaries of the mid-20th. Yes, they expanded the narratives of our histories and pushed our conceptions of literature to include new voices. This, in and of itself, did not create a liberal academy. The rejection of this knowledge as “illegitimate” by culture warriors like Lynne Cheney sure helped (who would bother studying a discipline when they are convinced that everything they read is a partisan lie meant to destroy white masculinity?). So too did the notion that students (i.e., non-elites) should look at college not as a place to engage and struggle with new ideas, but as a place to secure the best paying job they could attain. What made traditional academics skew liberal? I’d argue the proliferation of business colleges…

As for professionalization, this is a natural outgrowth of EVERY maturing discipline. You used to only need a masters degree to be a professor outside of the most prestigious schools (and even there it was often enough for their teaching appointments). Every scholar I have worked with that trained and worked in the “old” model, claims that the professionalization of their discipline made scholars who had much deeper and well-develop content knowledge than they did several generations ago. This fact is made clear by simply looking at the course requirements and reading lists. The same study and application that make technology and science move forward is necessary every other field as well.

Gelernter leaves out the third pillar of change that created the modern, liberal culture we live in– the lack of any coherent conservative alternative. From the 1960s through the last decade, all the right could muster in the struggle against the new order was a dated and hopelessly unpersuasive argument that the old ways were better. You were never going to get liberated women, people of color, Jews, the LGBTQ community or their allies to say “sure, let’s go back to segregation, subjugation, and persecution.” Our Constitution and the Enlightenment philosophies it sprung from make that impossible. I have yet to hear a non-racist explanation for favoring some long dead, early 20th century American “classic” over Toni Morrison’s “Beloved.” And arguments about the “classics” or “monumental figures” displays how ahistorical their thinking is. Every generation forges its own important books. The figures of history fade in importance. Don’t believe me? Read a history textbook from the 1850s. Napoleon dominates them. Read one from 1910– he’s been reduced to a few pages. By the 1970s, merely a few paragraphs. This is natural. Time moves on and our focus shifts. Conservative culture warriors never seemed to grasp this fundamental fact of cultural development. Thus, they never really built a coherent alternative to the ascendent “liberal” culture.

7. Where does a writer’s stuff appear?

A small, distinguished quarterly has asked me to write a piece explaining the more-or-less inevitable end of the colleges (which I wrote about in the WSJ a few weeks ago), and what will replace them. I’m grateful to them for asking, and will probably say yes. In a different world, I’d be writing the piece for a commercial magazine, and a general audience would actually read it. I’m a professional writer; I wrote a weekly culture-and-politics column for the New York Post in the ‘90s and the LA Times in the ‘00s. I’d rather write for a wider audience. But no commercial mag will touch me. One pays a price for one’s political beliefs. (Yet the price, in this society, is so trivial compared to what men have paid in living memory, the price they pay today in Islamic states, Marxist utopias and all kinds of tyrannies, that it is truly stupid, truly infantile to complain.)

So you just published a piece in the WSJ, but are whining about the “price” you pay for your beliefs? Come on. Commerical mags can’t afford you (or anyone else). And why is that? Myriad of reasons, for sure, the digital disruption chief among them, but look right, my friend. Our traditional commercial media outlets, referred to by the right-wing as the Mainstream Media, has been torn down and delegitimized by your fellow travelers. We cheer on the destruction of traditional media structures while lamenting having no serious place to publish our views. Aim that shit at Rush and company.

8. Artificial Intelligence is going nowhere until we have mastered Artificial Emotion. AI will continue to solve particular, set problems brilliantly, as it has been doing with slowly-increasing prowess since the 1950s, but AI software won’t show a glimmer of originality or creativity, which are essential to the very idea of thought, until it can simulate emotion as accurately as it does other mental phenomena.

We think with emotions as well as ideas.


Agreed. Our sketchy understanding of the human mind holds back our capacity for imitating it. More importantly, from my perspective, Gelernter points out one of the least discussed aspects of human decision making. Our “gut” is made up of densely stacked memories full of physical and mental sensations. Both our “snap” decisions and our more “thoughtful” ones are heavily influenced by how we process, understand, and employ our emotions. This is one of the major reasons that you cannot look at human choices through the prism of rational action.

9. AI is one of the most important technologies in history, and we’re going about it wrong. To do it right, we need information about the mind.  The people who know the mind best aren’t neurobiologists,  they’re novelists & poets.  Science must learn from the arts.

A scientist who know only science is in no position to do science.

100%. This is why we NEED a broad, liberal arts education for all students. Having a working understanding of the arts, humanities, and science creates beautiful intersections of knowledge that create the best solutions to problems and opportunities in every field.


10. One way to describe the spectrum is as a continuum from doing to being: the mind is capable of doing– acting, planning, noticing and solving problems; deciding on goals and concocting plans. This is the aspect of mind we usually focus on.  But the mind is also capable of passively experiencing some particular state.  As we move from the focused, logical, reasonable, analytical, planning-and-solving mind towards the diffuse, emotional, reminiscing, sitting-back-and-watching mind, and even farther “down spectrum,” into the dreaming mind, which shuts out external stimuli and responds to a hallucinated, emotion-saturated, hot-house reality… we’re moving from a mind whose main business is acting to one whose main business is being…


Words and language are the central abstractions of human life. Abstraction is up-spectrum; but when we think visually, emotionally, narratively, we are thinking concretely—down-spectrum…

I like this notion of up-spectrum and down-spectrum thinking. The spectrum from acting to being. Naturally, I feel drawn more to up-spectrum thinking and it is probably more common among the people I work with and associate with. But my down-spectrum thinking is what makes sense out of it all, where narratives are formed (or destroyed), where I can see and feel the effects of my work. Frequently it seems that our views of intelligence are tied up in preferences for up or down-spectrum thinking. I find people who can move seamlessly between the two to be the most impressive thinkers I’ve met.

20. The extraordinary graphic power of new computers ought to have set up a blizzard of new thoughts and new work on images and the mind, teaching images, reading images, expressing ourselves in images. That it hasn’t, that it’s set up nothing, is one of the surest ways to see that western culture is almost dead––is surviving on royalty checks from heroes of the past.

But there’s still more than enough time to change everything.

The extraordinary graphic power of new computers has fallen prey to the professionalization of our colleges. We live in the golden age of beautiful, inventive, interactive, and thought-provoking ads. Perhaps western culture really is dead or terminally ill (I’m working on a piece that questions whether or not it ever really existed). In many ways, we are living off the legacies of our revered past. We just elected an unqualified man to the highest office in the land on a wave of nostalgic longing. But there are still great innovations happening. Too often, we are simply unaware of it. We don’t cover it because we don’t care about it.

Clearly, Gelernter recently reread Life & Times of Michael K— he ends this interview paraphrasing Michael K. And he is right. There is time to change everything. It requires that we accept that the world has changed and that we redevelop a sense of respect for knowledge, creativity, discovery, and artistic expression. This is the essence of a society still developing. Rejecting those pursuits as the rotten fruit of a society gone wrong and aching to return to a supposedly glorious (if unnamed) past is what a civilization does in its death throes. You can join Nero in fiddling while Rome burns or you can get to the hard work of putting out the fire and building bigger, better structures in their place.

trump nero.jpg

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