Ed­i­tor’s Let­ter

The Walrus - - CONTENTS - Jes­sica John­son

Lee Smolin is a the­o­ret­i­cal physi­cist, au­thor, and ed­u­ca­tor — and, for the last few years, he has been a mem­ber of The Wal­rus Ed­u­ca­tional Re­view Com­mit­tee. The ERC is a group of aca­demics from dif­fer­ent dis­ci­plines work­ing at uni­ver­si­ties across Canada; they meet an­nu­ally, re­view the editorial con­tent of the magazine and The Wal­rus Talks, and sug­gest ar­eas of study from within their ex­per­tise — which in­clude Indige­nous is­sues, in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions, phi­los­o­phy, visual art, and the law. When I heard that Smolin, a found­ing fac­ulty mem­ber at the Perime­ter In­sti­tute for The­o­ret­i­cal Physics, would be stepping down from the ERC, I called to ask him, in this time of fake news and at­tacks on the me­dia, for his thoughts about the role of re­search in jour­nal­ism. “I think right now it’s re­ally hard to be a jour­nal­ist,” he said. “The mo­ment we’re in — and it’s clearly not just the United States, and it’s not just Don­ald Trump — is the ris­ing up of a cul­ture that doesn’t have the same ori­en­ta­tion [it once did] to­wards ob­jec­tiv­ity and fact.” Smolin’s up­com­ing book, Ein­stein’s Un­fin­ished Revo­lu­tion, ex­plores the in­tense dis­agree­ments about the­o­ret­i­cal in­ter­pre­ta­tion that con­tinue to plague quan­tum physics. What does he make of the gen­eral state of dis­course in the world? Smolin men­tioned sev­en­teenth-cen­tury Ger­man philoso­pher and math­e­ma­ti­cian Got­tfried Leib­niz’s ideas about rec­on­cil­ing mul­ti­ple per­spec­tives. Smolin pro­posed that “if we make the hon­est ef­fort to dis­cuss and crit­i­cize each other’s opin­ions, we can come to agree­ment about the ba­sic facts. In the ar­eas where we over­lap, there is only one story, and we should find it.” The Wal­rus may be unique among gen­eral-in­ter­est mag­a­zines in hav­ing an ERC — part of the ed­u­ca­tional man­date adopted when our or­ga­ni­za­tion was es­tab­lished as a char­i­ta­ble non-profit, in 2005. Our man­date doesn’t re­quire that sto­ries be di­dac­tic. In­stead, in the words of the con­tract sent to our writ­ers, it re­quires us to pub­lish work that is “mean­ing­ful, rel­e­vant, and use­ful from a so­cial, po­lit­i­cal, cul­tural, and/or sci­en­tific per­spec­tive.” In the past, we have ap­plied this editorial fil­ter to sto­ries about ev­ery­thing from Cé­line Dion’s wardrobe to Canada’s role in the age of Trump. In this month’s is­sue of The Wal­rus, we’ve trained our ed­u­ca­tional man­date on the topic of ed­u­ca­tion it­self. Ka­t­rina On­stad’s story “Class Di­vide” started out as a look at the pop­u­lar­ity of spe­cial­ized pub­lic-ed­u­ca­tion pro­grams. Over the past year, as ed­u­ca­tors and aca­demics in On­tario — home to North Amer­ica’s fourth-largest school board — be­gan to de­bate the role and suc­cess of spe­cial­ized streams, such as gifted pro­grams, On­stad un­cov­ered much more ex­pan­sive philo­soph­i­cal ques­tions about the na­ture of pub­lic ed­u­ca­tion and the best way to school a kid (gifted or other­wise). Har­ley Rus­tad, hav­ing chron­i­cled the fate of a sixty-six-me­tre Dou­glas fir in a re­cent book ( Big Lonely Doug), this month turned to tinier things; in “Man With a Plant,” he re­ports on his own tute­lage at the hands of Nigel Saun­ders, his “bon­sai mas­ter,” who also hap­pens to be a Youtube celebrity. One of the fic­tion pieces in this is­sue has an im­plicit theme of ed­u­ca­tion as well. “The Arith­metic of Com­mon Ground,” by Ot­tawa-based writer Scott Ran­dall, which won last year’s Writ­ers Ad­ven­ture Camp fic­tion con­test, ex­am­ines boy­hood friend­ships through the lens of math. One of the most un­ex­pected of ed­u­ca­tions in this is­sue is from Patti Son­ntag’s “The Cat Who Ate Like a Lion.” Af­ter I saw the huge re­sponse to a pic­ture that Son­ntag — also the direc­tor of the new In­sti­tute for In­ves­tiga­tive Jour­nal­ism at Con­cor­dia Univer­sity — posted on Face­book, I asked her to pro­file her fam­ily’s very large fe­line. We thought it would be a story about fat (cat) sham­ing, about the way that we hu­mans tend to project our own val­ues and is­sues onto an­i­mals. As you’ll see, it turned out to be a much richer story about love and the ties that bind us to our pets. The editorial team will miss Smolin as he moves on to The Wal­rus Na­tional Ad­vi­sory Coun­cil, which in­cludes peo­ple who have made a sub­stan­tial con­tri­bu­tion to The Wal­rus in our fif­teen years of op­er­a­tion. I asked him for some part­ing ad­vice. “I think you should ac­tively ask a ques­tion: Who are the new voices in Canada who need a home — whether in politics or in lit­er­a­ture or in science or in art? Who has things to say which are new and pow­er­ful and worth lis­ten­ing to?” In the com­ing months, we will do just that. —

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