Course Syllabus

Gary Saul Morson and Morton Schapiro                                                           

Winter 2015                                                                                                

Northwestern University

Alternatives:  Modeling Choice Across the Disciplines

Humanities 260 (Slavic 255)

This course offers a cross-disciplinary approach to the concept of alternatives and choices.  At any given moment, how many alternatives are possible?  Is there really such a thing as chance or choice?  On what basis do we choose?  How do students select a college and how does an individual select a life partner?  Can we usefully imagine alternative future paths?  How might we grapple with moral choices?  These and many other questions will be at the heart of this course.

Professor Morson, a humanities professor specializing in literary theory and criticism, and Professor Schapiro, a micro-economist who studies labor economics and in particular the economics of higher education, offer alternative approaches to these questions based on the presuppositions of their respective disciplines.  The class is structured as a debate with no single right answer to each question.  Readings are taken from literature, philosophy, economics, history, theology, evolutionary theory, urban planning and other disciplines.

Some readings can be found in the course readings packet while others are in separate books.  There are four such books, all available in paperback.  Some are classics (such as the Bible) and you might want to keep them on your bookshelves throughout your lives, assuming bookshelves exist in the future!


Topics and readings for each of our meetings are listed below along with some commentary on what you might expect for each week. Unless otherwise noted, all readings are included in our readings packet.


Weeks One and Two: Introduction; Alternative Futures


Alternatives are everywhere. It seems we face a labyrinth of possibilities, and that, whichever is realized, more possibilities open before us. What are alternatives? What are choices? How can alternatives be modeled, or is there a limit on modeling? How do different disciplines understand the concept of alternatives? How are they represented in economics, in literary works of different kinds, in ethical theories, in different theologies? Is it meaningful to speak of unconscious choices? If one alternative is realized, can one know what would have happened if another had been realized instead? No matter what happens, after a while it seems as if that was what had to happen, even if this is not the case. Is there a way to counter this spurious sense of no alternatives? Is there a way to re-imagine the openness of a past moment? How predictable are things? Are there alternatives without conscious agents choosing? Do physical, biological, and economic systems allow for more than one outcome from any set of causes? Is choice a subset of alternatives? When does an alternative become a choice? When is it chance? How did we choose the readings for this course? What would you have chosen? How should we choose to amend the syllabus for next time?


Class 1 – January 6 – Overview


Classes 2-4.   The Fabulous Future and the Garden of Forking Paths.


At any given moment, multiple futures -- or “futuribles,” as one philosopher has called them -- exist before us.   The moment something happens, the futuribles shift as well.   Older futuribles now appear less likely or even absurd to contemplate, while new ones we had never thought of emerge.   Each present moment is defined not only by what exists but also by what is anticipated. If so, then understanding a past moment includes understanding what the people living then anticipated, hoped for, and feared.   Today’s hopes and fears are sure to seem as dated as our technology.   And people will be able to learn about us by reading about our aspirations and warnings. In 1955, the smartest people around offered a series of predictions, most of which now seem silly.   But that is not because we are wiser but because we already know the outcome.   It’s easy to predict a horse race after it is over.   In 2014, Professors Schapiro and Morson asked some of the brightest people of today to offer their predictions. These now seem plausible, but, like all past futuribles, are sure to seem strange to our descendants.   And not for lack of intelligence, either in 1955 (has anyone ever been smarter than John von Neumann?) or today. Not only might these predictions be wrong, but the choice of fields deemed worthy of predicting may come to seem surprisingly wrong-headed.   Maybe twenty-five years from now, people will exclaim: how could Morson and Schapiro not have commissioned an article on ----? What were they thinking! So why then is it so hard to anticipate the world to come?   Why exactly are mistakes made?   What conclusions can we draw from the errors of geniuses or the warnings of the well-informed?   Maybe that, however sure we are, we shouldn’t bet the farm on it!


Class 2 – January 8 – readings:


  • Gary Saul Morson and Morton Schapiro, “The Future of Prediction,” Introduction to The Fabulous Future? America and the World in 2040, Edited by Gary Saul Morson and Morton Schapiro, Northwestern University Press, forthcoming May 2015.
  • Excerpts from the 1955 book, The Fabulous Future: America in 1980, David Sarnoff, “The Fabulous Future,” and John von Neumann, “Can We Survive Technology?”
  • Robert J. Gordon, “The Future of Economic Growth: Slowing to a Crawl,” in Morson and Schapiro, forthcoming.
  • Timothy Aeppel, “Economists Debate: Has All the Important Stuff Already Been Invented? Northwestern University Colleagues Have Opposing Views of 21st Century Economy,” The Wall Street Journal, June 15, 2014, p. 1.
  • Joel Mokyr, “What Today’s Economic Gloomsayers Are Missing,” The Wall Street Journal, Op-Ed, August 8, 2014 and “Secular Stagnation? Not in Your Life.”
  • Richard A. Easterlin, “A Happier World?” in Morson and Schapiro, forthcoming.

Week Two: More on Predicting the Future


Sometimes we can learn from predictions by creating a dialogue among them.   An expert in one area may unwittingly define possibilities for another.   That may be especially so when we are dealing with technology.   Perhaps one way to generate new ideas, or to become wiser, is to create a conversation among disparate points of view that usually do not encounter each other! Ratner, Kaminer, Gallucci and Huffington seem to be good candidates for such a conversation.

            Whatever happens, higher education will be studying it and, most likely, reshaped by it. But how?   What is the future of higher education?   In recent years, considerable debate has focused on the place or role of the humanities.   Is it worth studying?   Why does it appear to be in decline, and why is it declining?   What should the humanities be about?

            Sometimes to understand what does happen, one needs to understand what might have happened. One treats time as “a garden of forking paths.”   And what if, as in a real garden, the paths not taken actually exist?   Thinkers sometimes say that we need to consider the “counterfactuals.” What if a stray bullet had killed Napoleon in his first battle?   Maybe some other great leader actually did get killed and we do not know about him or her for just that reason?   Is it possible to model counterfactuals? What are the problems with “what if?” history? How else can counterfactuals be modeled -- say, in economics? In individual lives? What if a person is the sum not only of his accomplished actions but of the ones he merely contemplated as well?


Class 3 – January 13 – readings:


  • Mark A. Ratner, “Especially of the Future,” in Morson and Schapiro, forthcoming.
  • Wendy Kaminer, “Freedom’s Future,” in Morson and Schapiro, forthcoming.
  • Robert L. Gallucci, “The World in 2040,” in Morson and Schapiro, forthcoming.
  • Arianna Huffington, “Media of the Future,” in Morson and Schapiro, forthcoming.


Class 4 – January 15 – readings


  • Gary Saul Morson and Morton Schapiro, “The Future of Higher Education in the United States (and the World),” in Morson and Schapiro, forthcoming.
  • Tamar Lewin, “As Interest Fades in the Humanities, Colleges Worry,” The New York Times, October 30, 2013.
  • Paul Jay, “Essay on the State of the Liberal Arts,” Inside Higher Education, October 29, 2014.
  • Jorge Luis Borges, “The Garden of the Forking Paths,” and Gary Saul Morson, Narrative and Freedom: The Shadows of Time, pp. 227-233 (Book #1).


Week Three: Economics, Modeling and Morality


How does economics model human choices? What are the advantages and disadvantages of this approach to alternatives? Can it help explain how students themselves make choices – which colleges to attend, which classes and professors to take once you get there? Or does it help students decide how they should make such choices? How do colleges choose which students to accept? Which ones should receive financial aid, and how much? How much of such information should be disclosed? Are there ethical considerations involved? Can economic modeling help us to understand decisions regarding marriage and the family? What are the advantages, limits, and hidden assumptions of such models? Do economic models presume that results are driven to a single (optimal?) outcome, or to a single equilibrium point?


Class 5 – January 20 – readings:


  • Excerpts from Gary Becker’s The Economic Approach to Human Behavior and A Treatise on the Family.
  • Gary S. Becker and Julio J. Elias, “Cash for Kidneys: The Case for a Market for Organs,” The Wall Street Journal, Op-Ed, January 18, 2014.
  • Lawrence H. Summers, “The Memo,” December 12, 1991, as published by The Whirled Bank Group, 2001 and “Toxic Memo,” Harvard Magazine, May-June 2001.
  • Stephen Toulmin, “Economics, or the Physics that Never Was” in Return to Reason.


Class 6 – January 22 – readings:

  • Peter Nurnberg, Morton Schapiro and David Zimmerman, “Students Choosing Colleges: Understanding the Matriculation Decisions at a Highly Selective Private Institution,” Economics of Education Review, February 2012, pp. 1-8.
  • Peter Nurnberg, Morton Schapiro and David Zimmerman, “Educational “Goodwill”: Measuring the Intangible Assets at Highly Selective Private Colleges and Universities,” NBER Working Paper #17412, September 2011.
  • David Figlio, Morton Schapiro and Kevin Soter, “Are Tenure Track Professors Better Teachers?” NBER Working Paper #19406, September 2013.
  • Michael McPherson and Morton Owen Schapiro, “Moral Reasoning and Higher Education Policy,” Forum Futures 2010, Eric Hoover, “Why Counting Applications is an Iffy Exercise,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, September 24, 2013, and Ry Rivard, “Colleges Use FAFSA Information to Reject Students and Potentially Lower Financial Aid Packages,” Inside Higher Education, October 28, 2013.


Week Four: Irrationality and Choice


Is it actually possible for human behavior to be irrational? Or (in principle) might behavior be unpredictable? Or both? Numerous philosophers have thought that everything we do has been given for all eternity. Others have held that since we always act in what we perceive to be our own best interest, what appear to be choices are actually in principle predictable. Still others have thought the reverse, that irrationality plays a decisive role in human behavior and that humanness is the capacity to surprise. The classic argument here belongs to Dostoevsky, and one famous place he makes it is in the first part of Notes from Underground, where he (or rather his character, with whom the author does not always agree) argues against what we have come to call rational choice theory. In economic terms, some have pointed to empirical disconfirmation of the hypothesis of rationality. The classic account concerns “bubbles,” where people act as if in mania, and the classic account of bubbles is the 19th-century book by Charles Mackay.


Class 7 – January 27 – readings:


  • Fyodor Dostoevsky, “Part I: Underground” in Notes from the Underground Selection, translation, and introduction by Ralph E. Matlaw. New York: Dutton, 1960. 3-36.
  • Charles Mackay, “Forward” (by Andrew Tobias), “Prefaces,” “The South-Sea Bubble,” and “The Tulipomania” in Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds.

Class 8 – January 29 – readings:


  • Gary Saul Morson, Narrative and Freedom: The Shadows of Time, on William James, pp. 82-86 (Book #1).


Week Five: Crooked Paths of Change


Does change follow a predetermined path? Or does it depend on chance or contingent events that might or might not have happened? If the identical situation could be repeated – if the tape were played over again – would the same outcome take place? If things are driven to optimality, there would seem to be a single predetermined end point (the best one). Is that so? Are things really driven to optimality? What are the arguments pro and con? Must there be one possible end point? Must there be a resting point to which things are tending, whether optimal or not? Does time contain real alternatives?


Class 9 – February 3 – readings:


  • Excerpts from Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, on the struggle for existence (driving to improvement): pp. 60-67; nevertheless, there is imperfection: pp. 80-83, 137, 184-186, 194-203, 346-351
  • Stephen Jay Gould’s The Panda’s Thumb: More Reflections in Natural History, “The Panda’s Thumb.”.


Class 10 – February 5 – readings:

  • Henry Petroski, “How the Fork Got Its Tines” and “Form Follows Failure,” chapters 1 and 2 of The Evolution of Useful Things.
  • Gary Saul Morson, Narrative and Freedom, on time with alternatives: pp. 117-123, 148-155; and sports, pp. 173-177; on Notes from Underground, pp. 222-23; on evolution, history, and Gould: pp. 241-255 (Book #1).
  • One page-map of the Indo-European languages (how different languages branched off to produce the family of Indo-European languages as it exists today).

Week Six: Germs, Geography, Politics, Religion, Institutions and History                                                                                      

When we considered time as a garden of forking paths, we asked whether history could have multiple paths and whether sheer chance could play a role. Instead of asking about what would have happened if a bullet had hit Napoleon rather than one of his soldiers, some unorthodox thinkers, beginning with Hans Zinsser, have turned to disease. There seems to be no reason rooted in the usual forces historians examine why an important general or emperor should die of a disease at a crucial moment, and yet this happens all the time, evidently to great effect. And so the role of disease has come to stand for the question: is there chance in history? Are the usual historical explanations inadequate, and have historians illegitimately ruled out of court evidence they cannot handle? There are three broad ways of thinking about this question: (1) sheer chance invades history from without and shows the limits of historical explanation (Zinsser); (2) what seems like chance actually conforms to the iron-clad deterministic laws of another way of thinking (Diamond); (3) both chance and broad patterns play a role, both affecting each other. The broad patterns tell us a great deal, but do not eliminate the role of chance (McNeill). Diamond’s position resembles that of the economic and philosophical determinists we have examined, but with a different causal model; McNeill’s way of thinking resembles Darwin’s.

Class 11 – February 10 – readings:

  • Hans Zinsser, Rats, Lice, and History, pp. 3-14, 128-134, 150-165.
  • Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel, “Yali’s Question” (Prologue), “Necessity’s Mother” (chapter 13), “The Future of Human History as a Science” (Epilogue), and “2003 Afterword” (Book #2).
  • William McNeill, Plagues and Peoples, Anchor Edition, pp. 19-32, 54-73, 90-92, 95-97, 119-121, 223-225, 228-230, 254-264.

Class 12 – February 12 – readings:

  • Richard Easterlin, Growth Triumphant: The Twenty-First Century in Historical Perspective, Ch. 5, “Why Isn’t The Whole World Developed?” and Ch. 7, “Malthus Revisited: The Economic Impact of Rapid Population Growth.”
  • Joel Mokyr, The Enlightened Economy, pp. 1-12, 30-48, 122-123, 487-489.


Week Seven: Ethics and Choice


What is an ethical question? For example, if it is clear what is the right thing to do, but it would be unpleasant to do it, that is not an ethical question, only a question as to whether to choose to be ethical. An ethical question is one in which it is not clear what is the right thing to do. Could it be that the question simply does not have a definite answer? Does the right answer depend on the outcome of unpredictable events, or on subtle particularities that no one could specify in advance? Can a decision be morally right even if it turns out unexpectedly to have immoral effects? Should we answer moral questions the way we do mathematical proofs, by deductive reasoning? Or are the best moral decisions beyond rules? If so, what capacity in us, if not deductive reasoning, leads to better choices among alternatives? Whatever that capacity is, can it be developed? Aristotle argued that young people can make good mathematicians but not very good moral reasoners because good moral reasoning depends on experience and experience takes time. That is, two essentially different kinds of thinking are involved, the mathematical one proceeding top down, and the ethical one bottom up. With mathematical thinking, the answer is always true, whereas in ethical situations (says Aristotle) answers are at best ones true “on the whole and for the most part.” One has to learn to reason by cases. Aristotle, who was a physician, thought that was true of medicine as well; it is not just applied biology, but requires judgment about particular people, situations, and cases. So we can ask: When should we reason by theory and when by cases? When should theory dictate our reaction to particular cases and when should it be simply a sort of mnemonic device calling to mind other relevant cases but not providing a definite answer?

            Tolstoy's excerpts involve a discussion on a moral topic we all face.  The first excerpt asks if it is immoral to be rich when others are poor, and whether we should give away our property. In this discussion, we get a range of opinions and the answer is not clear. In the second passage, also from Anna Karenina, characters debate whether it is moral for a country to fight a war to save victims of persecution (something like Darfur or Rwanda today). Here Tolstoy clearly sides with those who say no. Dostoevsky saw such nonintervention as morally wrong, and answered Tolstoy.  We read a summary of their argument.


Class 13 – February 17 – readings:


  • Excerpts from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Book VI, chapter 11, and Book VIII, chapters 15 and 16.
  • Gary Saul Morson, Anna Karenina In Our Time: Seeing More Wisely, pp. 215-220 (debate between Tolstoy and Dostoevsky on humanitarian war summarized).
  • For a biblical example of an extremely difficult moral decision: “Binding of Isaac,” Genesis 22:1-24. Read it in the King James Version of the Bible (Book #3).


Class 14 – February 19 – readings:


  • excerpts from Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics, Book I, chapters 1-5, Book V, end of chapter 9 and chapter 10.
  • John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, sect. 3, “The Main Idea of the Theory of Justice,” sect. 24, “The Veil of Ignorance,” sect. 77, “The Basis of Equality”.


Week Eight: Translation and Versions  


Can more than one alternative version of a passage be correct? Can translations and editions legitimately differ? What about reports of someone’s famous saying? What if the draft of a song is better than the final version? How does one choose among alternative translations or versions? Whenever one translates from another language, one has to make choices. There is almost always a range of possible versions. If a word has more than one connotation in the original language, there may be no single English word that preserves them all, so one has to choose which to keep or which to sacrifice. How does one choose? Sometimes the grammar of the original language contains information (you may have to specify whether an object is animate or inanimate, whether you got the information yourself or by hearsay, etc.) which can only be supplied in English by adding words. Should one? If the original is poetry, does one pick a literal prose version, or does that lose all the meaning (not just the beauty) that poetry conveys? If the work translated is a sacred text, like the Bible, such choices can matter dramatically, and many recent translations have differed from each other as well as the classical English version, the King James Bible. Often, in renditions of the Bible, and in liturgies or prayers, translators pick a simplified, even dumbed-down version, to be sure everyone understands it. Is this a good idea? In English, a great deal of English rhetoric (the Gettysburg address, the speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr.) and literature presume a familiarity with the King James translation of the Bible. That translation has a special authority of its own for English speakers. Does that mean special caution should be used in changing it in a new translation? That it should not be changed at all? What about changes in prayer books? Sometimes we are offered apparently incompatible versions of a saying, both of which are held to be true. For example, the New Testament gives three distinct versions of Jesus’ last words. It cannot be that for 2,000 years no one noticed a discrepancy, so is there a sense in which they can all be “last words?” There are actually many other examples of multiple last words. If we have different versions of the same work that have come down to us, or a song or poem in more than one text, which one should we choose?


Class 15 – February 24 – and Class 16 – February 26 – readings:


  • Robert Alter’s introduction (“To the Reader”) to his translation of Genesis ix – xlvii (Book #4).
  • Translations of biblical stories: (1) Binding of Isaac. You have read the King James Version (Book #3). Compare it with Alter (Book #4) and read Alter’s notes. (2) Esau and Jacob story, Genesis chapters 25:19-27:46. Read it in the King James Version and in Alter and pay attention to the notes. (3) Genesis chapter 4 (Cain and Abel).   Read it in the King James Version, the Alter Version, the New English Bible, the Jerusalem Bible, the Jewish Publication Society’s Holy Scriptures and the Schocken Bible. (4) Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5-7 in the King James Version, the New English Bible and the Jerusalem Bible.
  • Alternative Versions of Last Words: Accounts of Jesus’ last words in Matthew 27:46-54; Mark 15:33-39; Luke 23:44-47; and John 19:28-30 in the King James Version (book #3).
  • Gary Saul Morson, The Words of Others: From Quotations to Culture, ch. 9 “Famous Last Words.”.

Week Nine: What Does Open Time Look Like? / Predicting the Future and City Planning with the Future in Mind


Can you look at something and see if it was produced by a rational, predictable process?   Or can you see that no guiding hand, just the chance opportunities of the moment, guided the result? For example, planned cities with a rectangular grid of streets (like Washington, DC, Center City in Philadelphia, Chicago or the first such city to be built, St. Petersburg), have always been designed in advance. Without such planning, roads go off in all directions, as in London or Moscow. So symmetry can be a sign of a rational single choice among alternatives, and asymmetry can be a sign of countless decentralized choices among local alternatives. Is that so? Or couldn’t a rational process mimic an irrational one and vice versa? How good are our predictions? Can they be modeled? Since everyone claims prescience for his or her predictions that turn out but has an excuse for those that don’t, how can we assess predictions or models to predict?


Class 17 – March 3 – readings:


  • Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, “Introduction,” “Part Two: The Conditions for City Diversity” and the concluding chapter “The Kind of Problem a City Is.”


Class 18 – March 5 – Tying Things Together


Saving up questions for the professors all quarter? If so, come to an optional session on March 10 (at the usual time and place) and ask away…


Course Summary:

Date Details Due