Three Majors, Two Theses, One Bleemer
Issue   |   Fri, 05/24/2013 - 13:40

Time may pass differently for Zach Bleemer. After four short years Bleemer will graduate having completed three majors and written two theses. Bleemer’s breadth of knowledge is only surpassed by its depth; he was commended with a senior award for both his economics and philosophy theses.

He pursues every endeavor with an unmatched enthusiasm, and it is fortunate that after individually accomplishing so much, Bleemer aspires to impart his knowledge to and develop the talents of others.

Finding the Ivory Tower
Born in Summit, NJ, Bleemer soon moved to and grew up in West Chester, Penn., a farming community outside of Philadelphia. An avid reader, Bleemer quickly developed an active interest in how and why people make the decisions they do. He knew from a young age that he wanted to become a teacher and recalls fondly the memory of, at the age of five, hunching over an iron stove and scribbling notes in an attempt to teach his then-three-year old brother arithmetic. Though his younger brother surpassed him in arithmetic long ago, his resolve to teach and mentor others has only grown stronger with age.

Bleemer was fortunate to have attended a high school at which the rules were malleable for high-achieving students, and he was trusted with the freedom to pursue his academic interests in his own manner.

Self-motivated and focused, Bleemer created his own education by generating and completing courses of study in game theory, symbolic logic, the philosophy of death and other subjects beyond those typically offered.

He then offered the fruits of that education to his peers, through both hundreds of hours of tutoring (largely volunteer) and teaching sections of his Chemistry and Economics classes at the invitation of his teachers. He spent summers hiking and rafting through the West Coast and Alaska, exploring the world’s exterior in parallel with the interior presented in his reading.

Bleemer considers a talk given by former President Tony Marx in Johnson Chapel as the moment when he decided which college to attend. He was struck when Marx called Amherst the ivory tower, which is typically used pejoratively.

“Amherst saw itself as a bubble, or tower, outside of the rest of the world from which you could see everything else and evaluate it,” Bleemer recalled. “It sounded to me like a terrible lifestyle — but just the kind of thing I wanted for four years.”
After receiving a Schupf scholarship from the College, which provides funding for summer and winter research, the deal was sealed.

Bleemer came to the College with many questions.

“I wasn’t as interested in learning the answers as learning a way to think about the questions,” Bleemer said.

He chose three fields he thought would complement each other in their disparate approaches to understanding how the world works: economics, philosophy and mathematics.

Bleemer managed to accomplish as much as he did through tremendous confidence, focus and hard work. In order to pursue three majors, he took five or six classes every available semester.

In order to write two theses, Roger Creel ’13 recalls, Bleemer declared that he had to write two pages every day, and he did; when asked if he ever came to the end of days feeling as if he had failed, Bleemer’s response was a succinct no. Naturally, however, difficulties arose from trying to separate so many frames of approaching questions.

“You start using economic language in philosophy papers and that is really bad. Economics is bad philosophy, and philosophy is bad economics,” Bleemer commented.

Bad Philosophy
During the summer of his junior year, Bleemer worked as an intern at the Federal Reserve Bank in New York, producing economic research. The Fed maintains a Research and Statistics Group to analyze the state of the American economy, half focusing on finance and the other half of economics (consumer debt, unemployment, etc.). Bleemer gravitated toward the economics branch.

“I worry that finance only depends on the whims of large investors and not on anything actually in the real world, whereas economists are looking at real people and how they act,” Bleemer said.

Moreover, a seven-hour workday allowed him the leisure to enjoy the city and pursue his other interests. As a research analyst, Bleemer worked on a consumer debt project, managing a dataset containing 42 million Americans’ credit reports for every quarter since 1999. From the data, he analyzed and predicted mortgage and credit card applications and originations throughout the Great Recession.

Bleemer wrote the first of his two theses in economics. He analyzed the effectiveness of certain provisions of 2009’s Stimulus Package that incentivized states to modernize their unemployment insurance systems.

“What really sets it apart as an economics thesis is the quality of the empirical work, which is very difficult empirical work and requires a large amount of data collection and very sophisticated econometric techniques,” said Professor Walter Nicholson, who advised Bleemer in the fall semester.

Bleemer attacked these problems with passion and produced an impressive piece of work, which according to Professor Nicholson “will have effects well beyond his college thesis.”

Bleemer’s economics thesis was awarded the James R. Nelson Prize for a distinguished thesis on public policy.

Bad Economics
Throughout his study of economics, however, Bleemer maintained a concern about the underlying utility maximization model of economics because he did not feel his behavior was at all motivated with a utility calculation. Beauty, he thinks, might be one example of a quality that people actively seek out for reasons fundamentally distinct from the resulting pleasure-feeling; people value beautiful objects differently from any other kind of objects.

As Bleemer stated, “Beauty is a challenge to the utilitarian framework.” Initially motivated by this critique of the hedonistic basis of economic theory, Bleemer would extensively explore the experience of the beautiful.

As a Schupf Scholar, Bleemer visited Europe and South America, reaching a total of 21 countries. Bleemer spent his days at art museums, religious sites and parks, studying both the experience of beauty itself and the ways in which art suggests changes in aesthetic beliefs and the function of art over time. By learning art history the way it ought to be learned — i.e., by going out and experiencing a lot of art — Bleemer was able to match the historical developed of art with those of literature and philosophical aesthetics, spurring and eventually developing an understanding of the progression of aesthetic belief.

Bleemer wrote the second of his two theses in philosophy, an interpretation of Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Judgment, which outlines Kant’s aesthetic theory. Kant describes the experience of beauty as the “harmony of the faculties of the imagination and understanding.” Nonetheless, Bleemer attempted a translation (of sorts) from Kant’s language to our own, demonstrating the (sometimes-obscure) validity and accuracy of Kant’s account of the beautiful.

“Kant thinks that in the experience of a beautiful object the faculties of the mind interact in such a way that normal human rational experience is interrupted, and in what you might call a pleasurable way...But this takes about 50 pages to explain,” Bleemer explained.

Bleemer’s philosophy thesis was awarded the Gail Kennedy Memorial Award for a distinguished thesis in philosophy; his work was also awarded the German Consulate General Prize by the German department.

In the coming years, Bleemer will face a significant challenge: to wed his philosophical interests with his statistical and mathematical proficiencies.

“I have this worry, shared by many people in the humanities, that statistics is a useful but disregarded tool for qualifying and stating true claims, and few humanists pay statistics any mind,” he commented.

While the idea of combining humanities with mathematics may seem strange, Bleemer has already demonstrated how feasible and valuable it can be. In the winter of his junior year, he went to the Folger Shakespeare Library, as a Folger Shakespeare fellow, and built a spreadsheet of editions of Hamlet published in Germany and the United Kingdom between 1760 and 1840. He used the data to compare the work of the British philosopher David Hume and the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who fiercely disagreed about the nature of beauty. Last year, as a Mellon Student Research Fellow, Bleemer statistically modeled how the 17th century translators of the King James Bible determined which of five aesthetics terms were used in translating the Hebrew term for beauty, attempting to explain how the translators used these words and examine the changes in commonplace aesthetic beliefs over time.

Full Circle
After graduating, Bleemer will return to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York for some final statistical training, which he intends to follow by entering a graduate program in philosophy (or an interdisciplinary field more amenable to statistics).
Bleemer today shares the same aspirations as he did as a five-year-old teaching his little brother arithmetic, and ultimately hopes to be a college professor.

His expansive education at Amherst has helped define that ambition. Up to this point, Bleemer has managed to resist being restricted by the bounds of any single academic field, and he hopes to continue avoiding such fetters in the coming years, producing rigorous interdisciplinary scholarship even while developing the specialization required of any doctoral candidate or academic.

While Bleemer may be leaving (what he has not taken from) Amherst next year, he may not be gone for long.

“Amherst is exactly the place I have wanted to be for my undergraduate experience, and it is exactly the place that I would look to find the undergraduates that I would like to mentor as I move forward.”