Ora sono ubriaco d'universo. (Ungaretti)

Category: education (page 1 of 8)

Teaching Writing When You Yourself Don’t Know How to Write

1. Supposedly, Thomas Mann said that writing is more difficult for writers than other people. I wouldn’t know, as I can’t find the essay where the quote resides. What I have depends on hearsay, and my response to such an idea, my attempt to test its truth, depends on my attempt to make something.

Writers talk a lot about craft, their depictions seeming almost whimsical when one considers how technical good writing is. Good poems feature a number of literary devices to bring about rhythmic, musical sounds while preserving a puzzle, a sense of mystery, that makes one want to revisit the speaker’s perspective. Nowadays, many people consider poetry artsy nonsense that isn’t demanding enough. Journalism and essays are thought to have stricter standards in terms of organization, facts, analysis, and even authorial credentials. But when a journalist says they retype their sentences to “get into a rhythm,” and a renowned poet talks about using Tarot cards for an exercise, I wonder where exactly our sense that writing is an intricate machine with various, necessary parts comes from.

2. I could teach her with make a claim, defend it. Rinse and repeat. If you say Lincoln has a different rhetorical basis for American democracy than Jefferson, for example, you cite the Gettysburg Address as significant. You propose that there, he comments on the Declaration of Independence, changing the status of “all men are created equal” from “self-evident truth” to a “proposition” in order to reflect the fact that American democracy may not survive. What is needed is the rededication of the American people, a real concern for equality, and thus nothing less than a “new birth of freedom.” A claim leads to further claims which can be proved. You go through the words you put on paper, identify what claims you want or have to make, order and defend them accordingly.

It goes without saying this is not writing. It is not even thinking. Learning to write in terms of “here’s a thesis, here’s what defends the thesis, order accordingly” held me back in terms of my thought for years. It put a premium on organization and a certain kind of argumentation that limited what I saw and said. It was helpful for assignments, but what I needed was to learn to write badly. Really badly.

There’s a lot on this blog that’s incomprehensible. I’d start putting words down, get obsessed with a detail or two, completely lose focus on what I intended to say. Or I’d start with a bunch of suspect observations and work myself into a tangle. Other times I’d lose my place or forget to summarize what I had covered adequately, or I’d have an inconsistent tone that makes it unclear what I really meant to argue. Finally, there’s the problem of writing too much, of losing focus just because I’m straining myself, trying too much too sloppily, hoping effort justifies.

That hard work can be counterproductive is more than a tough lesson. There are people – indeed, I’ve had “teachers” who’ve told me and others this – who urge quitting in the face of it. Why try, why fail? I’m not making sense to others, I’m not making sense to myself. If writing doesn’t communicate, what good is it?

3. One has to arrive gradually at an answer. You can read into my words above, you can see the shape of a response, but to accept and embrace any such supposition does not begin to comprehend the power of real writing. What makes Lincoln awesome is the power within his themes and questions. Rightly he centers on the problem of equality and liberty, seeing it fundamental to how we conceive democracy. You could say a number of thinkers say the same, that he didn’t really free the slaves, that he prosecuted a terrible war, that his literary legacy is miniscule, that he destroyed the Constitution. None of this gets at why his words matter, why he’s a human being of the first rank. It isn’t the eloquence, it isn’t the history, it isn’t even his position. It’s the attempt: his sense of justice courses through every word of the Address.

Oftentimes, “finding your voice” stands a sad trope in writerly circles. Learning to be sensitive to the voices of others, to give life to voices other than your own, becomes a lost cause. And even for those with more interesting, nuanced voices, “finding your voice” becomes the impetus for self-indulgence rather than thoughtful concern.

I propose that it is knowing how our words fail us that is the heart of any truth in finding one’s voice. It’s easy to look at amazing, successful examples of writing and be starstruck. We want to imitate or find our own path, enjoying fame or moving others. But our goals, whether noble or ignoble, whether just or unjust, can point away from the more refined understanding of justice in self-expression itself. Polonius may have been a fool, but “to thine own self be true” is what we’re reaching for.

4. Of course, continually failing at writing does not lend itself to being a productive, useful writer. At some point, a student has to craft prose that conveys knowledge and relevance.

That prose, I suspect, has to accept its incompleteness. We do tell a lot of stories nowadays that at first glance seem limited. To take the most serious example, the news comes fragmented. However, as a whole, it is united by the theme of “our world” and characterized by cyclical repetition.

In a way, pre-Socratic madness was more honest. Why not compose a poem that will disclose the truth of Being? Are all things one and unchanging simply because they are? Or is everything composed of water? Or wind? Or fire? We have assumptions that color how we receive or convey anything. To engage and confront the craziest ideas can remind of what generates everything from cosmologies to laws to manners and mores.

Suffice to say my failures as a writer can be cured by pushing a delete button. In my teaching right now, I’m trying to get students to be honest about how they think or don’t think about their assignments. It isn’t enough for them to write a solid argument or express an insight. What matters is how they got there, where the resistance made itself felt.

Reflections on Close Reading

for Laura Garofalo. With thanks to Ricky McAlister & Nathaniel Cochran

1. blah blah blah close reading will change your life you’ll get a real education you’ll think independently you’ll feel like the past is with you always you’ll be stronger and smarter and you’ll know god and morality better as well as the limits of science blah blah blah BLAH BLAH

The humanities are all but dead in our world. This all of us know, as they can never be dead enough. They’re a convenient scapegoat for calling others impractical and deflecting the words “greedy,” “asshole,” or “unimaginative tool,” words that normally stick to the guy saying we throw too much money as a society into the liberal arts. Just point at someone who majored in English and everyone can have a good laugh, as they can’t even get that job at McDonald’s nowadays. Apparently the ultimate sign of our decadence isn’t the money we waste on phones or cars, but time spent reading poetry.

It’s easy to see that something else exists beyond making money, getting the trains to run on time, advancing technology. The problem is creating a positive case for the humanities without talking about that “something else” as the sum total of the universe or human freedom or divine perfection. I know what I like about close reading; Nathaniel, via Nietzsche, really hits the mark for me. His brief comment talks about the back and forth of wondering why any words were written at all. For me, this translates into taking books one line at a time, stopping, talking, talking through each one.

Still, Ricky didn’t hesitate to mention books that mattered to him centering on important themes, whether they portray a world completely throwing books away, or consider what freedom and dignity mean in a world which relishes making people slaves. No one would read if they didn’t get anything out of it, and focusing too much on close reading itself forgets that we tend to be selective about what we read.

I guess what I’m learning through close reading is how to convey the import of things, how to take seriously things I wouldn’t normally think through and communicate them to others. No wonder so much moralizing accompanies careful readers. Even if the humanities weren’t under assault, it’s impossible not to treat a discovery in a book as a revelation. At the very least, you’re stumbling upon someone’s concern; simply by being a discovery it becomes central to you. Shouldn’t it be shared, proclaimed to the world?

I think so, but I also think that points less to the humanities as transformative and more to them as necessary. They are foundational. They’re about how and that we talk to each other. To take one not-so-trivial example: if we can’t engage the past seriously, we will more than likely use some romantic notion of it or rejection of it to hurt others. While the humanities can certainly be about the trivial and encourage a lack of productivity, they have more to do with this “freedom” and “morality” thing than most people today assume. Typically, the ones telling us that reading or formal schooling are wastes of time have a very specific and very mindless agenda.

2. I need to say something about close reading itself. I was asked. This was not prompted by books with titles like “How to Read like a Professor.” No, I’ve been making my notes public for 7-8 years now as I read. Some people actually care and are wondering how this works or doesn’t work.

For myself, it has taken years to learn how to read, and there is this strike against the state of the humanities nowadays. When I miss a detail, it feels like I don’t know how to read at all. Same goes for writing badly. How could I possibly write a bad sentence, given that I work on my writing all the time?

The humanities, as they stand, are far too small, far too exclusive. This is not to excuse my failures, which are legion and well documented in a number of incomprehensible posts on this blog. It is to say that the whole point of the humanities is that we should be working together to make sure more opinions are more thoughtfully expressed, read, and promoted. Instead, the whole culture has become a snobfest, a way for some professors to play pundit and shirk the real duty of educating the body politic. To do their real duty would involve making mistakes publicly and taking the risks that accompany having an important part of the truth and believing one’s profession worthwhile. The ultimate risk seems to be admitting one is wrong and someone else is better. It’s very rare I see people graciously recommend others.

With that in mind, I propose two simple rules for those who want to close read. They are:

  1. “Why is this being said?”
  2. It is far more important and valuable to come up with a serious question or insight about a part of a work than have the whole figured out.

All of you will recognize that 1 is the sum total of close reading. Regarding literature, one posits an internal speaker and internal audience for a given work in order to treat it as a self-contained world. In other words: all the fancy attempts at using a method to read are about finding intention and relevance from another point of view. We are working to be informed, and trying not imposing our assumptions.

2 is much more controversial. Leo Strauss has been an invaluable guide for me, showing me how to think carefully about texts. Strauss is always attentive to the whole, and I always work to get an interpretation that takes it seriously. And I do think good readers will show some respect for the whole no matter what.

But one of the reasons why the humanities is in crisis is that its exclusivity demands too much from thoughtful, serious people who have better things to do than close read thousand page books all the time. A lot of people who don’t really know as much as they should read too much, too fast. Or they close read to absurd degrees, not bothering to ask whether they have good questions or not, or whether one insight may have more weight than another.

I want more people to dare to be wrong. We’ve got too many right answers: everyone knows everything. The best way to get people to be wrong in the right way is to get them talking about what speaks to them, to let themselves find a path where they can discover why the whole text ultimately matters.

I’m putting my money where my mouth is. You’ll notice that my approach to poems is more personal than it has been previously, focusing on the dramatic action of a given poem and considering various ways in which a thing could be said. I want stanzas and lines to sing; I want people to feel the relevance of certain questions or ideas. My gamble is that the twists and turns those questions and ideas take later in the poem are twists and turns others will want to follow. It’s a gamble I know is worth taking. For a while, I thought I was talking to myself.

On Getting a Ph.D. in the Humanities

Jordan Weissmann reports that job opportunities for academics are pathetic and shrinking. He wonders why humanities Ph.D. programs haven’t “collapsed:” “From 2011 to 2012… the number of first-time students enrolled in arts and humanities Ph.D. programs had grown 7.7 percent.” [my emphasis] He’s curious to know what drove the decision making of those of us in these programs generally. The market’s been bad for years now, after all.

I don’t know what to say. I’ve always felt kind of dumb, and the fact that I could rant incomprehensibly or find questions that almost make sense bothered me. My first real experience with the humanities was in undergrad, when I realized that reading a book or a poem was tough work that never really ended.

I guess that’s a testimonial-type answer, and I don’t really like giving it. But along the way, I’ve seen so much pettiness within academia and have had real doubts about the value of the classroom. I honestly don’t know how valuable a classroom is unless someone already cares to master the material. I want to change the question: Why do many of us stick with the humanities? Why don’t we just give up? Why do we want the time to read and write and have pointless debates?

Now I know I have something closer to the heart of the matter, because I have a line of questioning that isn’t reducible to a testimonial or a career plan. It involves a sense of value, to be sure, but that sense of value is informed by a want to be relevant, if not practical. And this line of questioning can easily turn into a larger critique of our age without getting snobby. It is true people like Jefferson and Hamilton read everything, including a lot of stuff we would dismiss out of hand as useless. But it’s also true they were very mindful of the practical and probably didn’t care that most Americans could cite the finer points in Montesquieu if they were busy mapping a mountain range or making money by brewing craft beers.

I’d rather get snobby. What I suspect is this: we are at an absolute nadir in terms of people caring about literature or the classics or rhetoric. Our best talent in terms of writing makes movies and tv and comics. They, being exceptional, read a ton and know that the experience of carefully reading – of extracting the opinions of another slowly from a text by working through what you yourself think and eliminating the worst ideas – they know that experience does not sell. What sells is nostalgia, which might be the true porn of tumblr (other than the stuff that is porn). To not put a too fine point on it: when we’re complaining about too many Ph.D’s in the humanities, what we’re really saying is that we have too many people who care to read and write. We need that number to be 0. It’s a similar phenomenon to journalists being told to stop blogging and start tweeting because people who consume print media are little better than heroin addicts. But again, this is just a suspicion.

On a more serious note, I do think a little bit of Marxist-type criticism helps here. There’s capitalism and the culture of capitalism. The latter demands everything conform to its sense of value. The university as a whole does not fit comfortably into this mold, so it has been transformed. It’s now a tax shelter for oligarchs who run sports leagues with unpaid labor and collect federal subsidies. Maybe the reason why some people are in the humanities is that they want to make sure, despite our corruption, that future generations can have access to the past. Maybe they think an example needs to be set, that it needs to be shown someone cares about fashion in 15th c. England or an obscure treatise on horsemanship. Maybe that’s what’s going on, that the humanities are more a vocation and less a career. Maybe.

I’ve Got Mail!

From a letter sent me on or around August 4th:

The way you parse texts just amazes me. I was hoping you could provide a little advice, what direction I should be going in to hone my interpretive faculties.

Thanks for the praise. I’m very grateful you’re reading. I think the best way to start here is to start with what I get wrong.

I’ll be the first to admit that maybe 75% of the blog needs serious editing. There are plenty of entries which flat out don’t make sense or have reasoning that’s far too clipped for any reader but myself to understand. And as I get older, I forget what I was thinking about at the time.

That having been said, the blog isn’t a final product. It’s really a notebook, a peek into how to go about analyzing things. And ay, there’s the rub yet again. There are plenty of analyses of things that are much clearer than what I’m doing. So what exactly is happening here that might be of use to someone who wants to work through texts for themselves?

I think there’s two things of value: first, dissatisfaction with obvious readings as some kind of gold standard. Strauss is quoted by Benardete somewhere as saying something to the effect of “if your title gives away what you’re talking about, why did you write anything to begin with?” (This is not advice to be taken when writing scholarly papers). I don’t think anything is obvious – what has always taken me aback is how rare this magical thing we call common sense is.

I’m not saying throw out obvious readings. The best approach to them is to summarize them and identify a weakness. This is much harder than it looks, because of the second thing of value: the relevance of someone’s speech is what you’re aiming for, and if someone’s speech is relevant, it speaks to a number of issues, not just one. A good example of this is Lincoln’s Second Inaugural. The nation needs healing; the rhetoric should be simple and to the point. But Lincoln goes and wrestles with divine judgment, knowing that the deeper issue is how democracy itself – our own claim to represent the rights of man – has been and will be judged. You can see how easy it is to get lost in this sort of web of themes.

So some practical advice, which I’m sure you’re already putting to use:

  • Start small. You don’t need to write an interpretation of the whole of the Odyssey. But if you work through a puzzling scene and come to a good question, who cares if you’re exactly right or not? The goal is to do justice to the work.
  • Context & your audience. You can pull stuff out of context, but be really clear. Again, this is not something I practice perfectly – not even close – but you have to be attentive to your audience even when writing privately. You’ve got to ask yourself why you’re writing what you’re writing, why you’ve made the interpretative leap you’ve made. That means establishing for some audience why you’re doing what you’re doing. It means, probably, establishing at least two contexts: that of your inquiry and the one the work is situated in.
  • Bring up the questions that occur in your everyday life without using fancy texts. You don’t need to write about how some piece of legislation you’re for or against is reminiscent of Tocqueville or not. That’s actually something I’ve tried hard to steer away from recently. Yeah, debates and themes recur over and over again. That’s not why they’re relevant. They’re relevant because you’re seeing something that’s important to you.
  • Read everything, though some books are more valuable than others. The books which helped me the most: Aeneid, The Case of Wagner, Plato’s Symposium (Strauss’ lectures highly recommended), Xenophon’s Apology and Symposium, Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War, Plato’s Minos, Bacon’s New Atlantis. I’m not putting this list down to be like “look at all the learned stuff I read.” Rather, each work listed engages a number of metaphors and themes which show up in nearly everything else. And I mean everything. I actually can’t recommend Xenophon enough for seeing how what is “obvious” fails for those who really want to get the most out of a book.

Let’s talk about the ways fundamentalists can abuse each other and create a society of 10 year olds

I don’t think the author meant to be bullying, and I do think this attempts to be more satirical than mean, but experience has taught me that this is not innocuous in the least

So that link above is a really good look at where I go to school. A lot of things I’ve struggled to explain to you can be seen very clearly through it. I should say that as far as I can tell, most women on campus dress modestly or decently and there was little or no need for the editorial’s call for – well, I’ll let the author explain:

…“long skirt” signifies more than a daily clothing choice; it is a frame of mind that values modesty for the sake of holiness. You can be a long skirt, and you should encourage all the women in your life to adopt the modesty and prudence of long skirtness for the sake of their beauty and the benefit of everyone who has to look at them.

The problem with this kind of talk isn’t that a lack of modesty is a good thing. The problem is that there are a lot of people who are, to say the least, not-very-nice hiding behind this sort of rhetoric. I’ve known fundamentalist families and friends who will yell at anyone over anything. I don’t think I need to spell out where and how I’ve met them. And while no school should be connected to what at times might be termed “abuse,” the unfortunate reality is that a university’s culture can reinforce some of the worst things human beings can do to each other.

In this case, it absolutely is the case that this kind of talk encourages self-hate and paranoia over nothing. Witness this comment:

This article really made me re-think about what I’m wearing. I don’t usually wear leggings, but I do wear semi-fitted to fitted pants (which the majority of the world wears now). Still, it made me aware of the fact that I need to exercise modesty.

I hope this is a joke, because it has absolutely nothing to do with faith or treating people well or loving justice or walking humbly with one’s God. The way it is written, it seems to have everything to do with jumping through arbitrary hoops and saying that’s the essence of faith. What’s at play is fundamentalist peer pressure. I’m not saying the author of the comment shouldn’t be more aware of what she already wants to do, i.e. be more modest. If that’s what she wants, fine. I can see how that might generate something people would consider holy. But it looks to me that the article has achieved something that can only be called sinister.

There’s an additional problem. Not only is there implicit (and in some cases, explicit – read some of the comments by the article’s defenders) bullying. It’s also the case that now, instead of talking about whether French intervention in Mali will be successful or Platonic thoughts about justice carry over into Augustine, we’re stuck on this. All of a sudden, in one bold stroke, everything a school tries to be intellectually is gone. And the price is more than intellectual. After all, what’s happening is some form of bullying. What is lost as an educational institution is any sense of maturity.

We lose the ability to produce people who can talk about relevant issues. We lose the ability to seriously critique the worst aspects of our culture. We lose the ability to create leaders who can be trusted by everyone. Does it surprise you that the article sounds like a number of people who are thought to be unelectable? What makes someone unelectable is when they create an “us” vs. “them” with no credible reconciliation of the gap. That was what made Romney’s “47%” remark fatal: there’s no real attempt to try and say “we.” There’s only “good” and “bad” with one group always being “bad.”

No one’s saying there can’t be a more conservative culture or calls for decency. But this is what you get on a conservative campus, and yes, it probably is related to the GOP’s current problems. To be blunt: I couldn’t stand Leftist causes at state university. But at least those Leftist causes were aware, in large part, that there were other people in the world and that those other people deserved better. What is so striking about the next generation of conservatives, from what I can see, is an almost endless amount of self-absorption. As if morality were only a personal code of conduct – as if “love thy neighbor” was an option.

Let’s Talk a Little about Sports in American Life

1. To those of you outside the United States who are curious: we do not just have professional sports leagues like the NFL and NBA. Nor are there just minor league teams, like the farm teams each associated with a Major League Baseball team.

No, we also have collegiate athletics. There are plenty of student-athletes who work hard for their grades and accomplishment in their sport. Some of the competition yields Olympians in things like fencing and track.

However, there’s also the spectacle of college football and basketball. Both sports attract large fan bases and some of the players make it into the NFL and NBA. There’s an enormous amount of money to be made and none of it has anything to do with education. The universities that participate are technically non-profit, enjoying some rather nice tax exemptions. The labor is unpaid and is often notorious for caring about things other than classes. Not so long ago, a booster (someone who gives money and support to a sports program) at the University of Miami acknowledged that he paid for prostitutes for football players. Visit that link and you can see a picture of the school’s president accepting a check from him.

Some argue that the money a university makes through sports goes into their educational mission. It’s safe to say there’s enough corruption and fudged numbers that it’s hard to determine. There’s every incentive to hide any deficit the Athletics Department might have. Safe to say, winning programs make money, losing programs not so much.

I’d like to tell you this sort of thing is confined to “sports factory” schools, but think about the fact that “sports factory” is a term I can use for an institution of higher education which makes sense to you. That tells you a lot about where our values lie. Tax shelters for rich administrators, bread and circuses for everyone, a complete breakdown in what an education means. More on this in a second.

2. Josh sent me two links recently which only make a call for reform that much more potent. The problem, as you probably intuit, is much larger than very profitable (for some) college sports. The city of Oakland in California just fired 25% of its police force, even as it is the 5th most crime-ridden city in the nation. It did not touch the money – $17 million – it gives the Oakland Raiders.

You could say, “haha, that’s Oakland,” but that’s again missing the bigger picture. In the United States of America, the NFL is a non-profit:

In the eyes of the IRS, the National Football League is considered a nonprofit outfit. Just like the United Way. Read that again. The NFL — a league that makes roughly $9 billion in revenue per season and will collected [sic] a guaranteed $27 billion in television money over the next decade — enjoys the same tax breaks as, say, your local chamber of commerce, because both are classified as 501(c)6 organizations.

The article I got that information about the NFL from is so important I’ll link it again. It is true the NFL and its various franchises are paying some taxes. However, there’s an enormous amount that is tax deductible and a lot of information that can’t be accessed. For more discussion about how professional teams operate: “Let’s Eliminate Sports Welfare.”

3. At this point you’re probably thinking “those Americans have a really unhealthy obsession with sports.” I’m not sure about this. Yes, there are some grotesque examples of hooliganism: fans of school teams and professional teams who curse and taunt and fight during games, riot after games. Still, fan awfulness in soccer/football globally is very hard to top.

I don’t know how obsessive we are as the American people. I think this: a few are really into sports and a few are really profiting. For most of us, sports are a default – there aren’t any new episodes of Adventure Time on; maybe we’re tired of practicing guitar. We’ll flip channels and watch someone throw a pass.

My guess is that if you say to someone “hey, your tax dollars are going for so-and-so’s new stadium” and give them a magic button to stop the flow of those dollars, they’ll hit that button the majority of the time. Even die-hard fans will probably say the tax base shouldn’t be burdened with what they love privately.

Still, one can imagine plenty of people going “meh” because they’ve got other things to do and think about. Right now, complacency favors the entrenched interest, even as we are undergoing a terrible recession where states are taking federal money for welfare and using it to patch other holes in their budget.

4. The genius of the American system, though, is that all you have to do is get a representative of some sort to make this his cause. Most really do care about governing well (fiscal cliff shenanigans notwithstanding). They don’t want to be remembered as a stooge of corporate interests or ideologues who couldn’t work with or for anyone. That’s where awareness and saying “hey, stop sports welfare” over and over come in. Give the idea enough cultural currency and the fix will follow.

There’s a bit more that isn’t quite an addendum. When we throw all these resources into sports at the collegiate level, we lose a lot in terms of education. It’s not clear that we create literate citizens at the university level:

A 2006 study from the American Institutes for Research found that only 31 percent of adults with bachelor’s degrees are proficient in “prose literacy”–being able to compare and contrast two newspaper editorials, for example.

We throw a lot of resources into sports. Again, I don’t know we do this consciously. To argue against those misplaced resources, in my mind, is a boon to the humanities. I don’t quite agree with everything Bill James says here, but his focus on the obvious shouldn’t be neglected:

American society could and should take lessons from the world of sports as to how to develop talent. How is it that we have become so phenomenally good, in our society, at developing athletes?

First, we give them the opportunity to compete at a young age.

Second, we recognize and identify ability at a young age.

Third, we celebrate athletes’ success constantly. We show up at their games and cheer. We give them trophies. When they get to be teenagers, if they’re still good, we put their names in the newspaper once in a while.

Fourth, we pay them for potential, rather than simply paying them once they get to be among the best in the world.The average city the size of Topeka produces a major league player every 10 or 15 years. If we did the same things for young writers, every city would produce a Shakespeare or a Dickens or at least a Graham Greene every 10 or 15 years. Instead, we tell the young writers that they should work on their craft for 20 or 25 years, get to be really, really good—among the best in the world—and then we’ll give them a little bit of recognition.

We might be a bit better at identifying and rewarding achievement and diversity in the sciences. We can certainly encourage people to do more hands-on things like shop. But anyone who argues that we read or write too much, spend too much time preserving and evaluating the past, thinking about how best to express ourselves – anyone who says that is an idiot. You would think with all the writing and speaking on the Internet we’d have a more literate generation than ever before. I think a lot of people try and create some wonderful content. Imagine what they could create in a world that took literature, philosophy, history seriously.

The State of Philosophy on the Internet

1. Sometimes the Internet and modern media technology are responsible for explosions of new talent. There’s no doubt in my mind we’ve been treated to a bunch of exceptional chess players and some great photographers because of our increasingly digital life.

I have reasons to suspect that despite access to a number of terrific resources, quite a few philosophy majors, and intelligent philosophy blogging that philosophy as a field is not blossoming online.

2. Notice that I say “as a field.” I don’t expect people to be reincarnations of Socrates or Wittgenstein. I’m not sure I even want that. What I do want is familiarity with the basics, an ability to think critically, appreciation and discrimination of the better from the worse in terms of philosophy itself.

It’s a losing battle. When philosophical thinking is not reduced to justification for various ideologies, it is needlessly complex and always shallow – the goal seems to be to show who can “win” on comment threads. The only thing even approaching something like intellectual honesty is the population of would-be cheaters posting their homework questions in forums. I can’t stand them. But at least their assignments ask “What does so-and-so mean by such-and-such?”

I’m not unhappy with philosophy blogging. Then again, we’re talking about academics blogging primarily. That’s exclusive in some awful ways. Academics not only tend to talk to other academics, but to a very specific segment of them. None of this, of course, helps the field significantly, especially when more “accessible” posts are ideological rants.

3. There is no solution that will make what I’m complaining about go away. I’m writing so that way a few serious minds who are dabbling in the field but not doing something more rigorous get away from news aggregator sites like Digg or Reddit and start making good notes on primary sources for themselves. I’m actually happy philosophy isn’t worse online – after Colin McGinn’s ridiculous proposal, it is clear things could be a lot worse overall.

I’d better tell my story. In my undergraduate studies, I understood virtually nothing in philosophy for 3 years. I was lucky to encounter some lectures on Aeschylus that explored the mythic foundations of the city. There was little or nothing to sustain those thoughts, though. The course I was in blazed through the Apology and Republic and Aristotle’s Politics. I couldn’t keep up and every time I got confused there was not only too much to do, but it wasn’t clear how I should even approach the texts.

Things only started opening up for me when I had time to breathe and a rough idea how the history of ideas worked. Yes, I’m not even talking about critical thinking or appreciation/discrimination at this point. Everything I’ve said so far is about “basics.” It took repeated attempts of reading with the question “Who cares about this stupid book?” in the background to bring the better books to life. Plato’s Republic was notorious in this regard. I tried reading it several times over a number of years. Each time I tried, I got the feeling that the book read “What is justice? Yes.”

4. So I think this. We can remedy a lot of what’s wrong with philosophy online if a few know some more basics and are willing to read carefully. Eventually they’ll ask serious questions. They won’t see everything in terms of arguments or argumentation. They won’t be taken in by big names and ideological agendas.

A few posts I’ve got to help people get started:

  • On Machiavelli’s Prince – a brief overview of the history of political philosophy. I’ve got my biases. They’re pretty clear in this post. I still recommend it: it’s a starting point.
  • Xenophon, Memorabilia III.7 – I’ve got the whole section here where Socrates exhorts Charmides, Plato’s uncle and an awful human being, to hold office. The commentary shows that this might actually be an attempt of Socrates to moderate Charmides. The larger point: ancient philosophy is very tricky stuff. Usually it requires ridiculously good reading skills. I confess I’m still lacking in many regards.
  • On Oedipus Tyrannus – short post showing how Greek tragedy may create a counterpoint to political philosophy.
  • On Plato’s Minos – you don’t need to know the text to know the status of “What is law?” is a solid question.
  • On Aristotle’s Politics I.1 – the text in question is very important. Aristotle lays out a plan for politics on vastly different grounds than we use.

I’ve got so much more lying around. Wish I could link you to all of it. I’ll just say this – I started writing so that way people could pick their text and stick with it. They’d know someone had read it or was reading with them. The big problem with the Internet is simply this. With all these texts available and the ability to publish, we do surprisingly little reading. Surprisingly little consideration of the voices of others.

Letter to a Young Intellectual

for Madeline Frohlich – happy birthday

Dear Madeline:

Humid air yesterday and today weighed us on campus down. It refreshed at first. Before – too much dryness, an annoying cold. A breeze and some accompanying warmth, moisture and sunshine invigorated many. Then we started feeling sluggish and sleepy. I got little done yesterday, a bit more today in the air conditioning.

I am surrounded by students who seem to work at things not many others take seriously. Students here pride themselves on mentioning things about Thucydides, papal encyclicals, Auden. Sometimes this means being comically divorced from the most basic news. One student, three weeks after the BP oil spill, confessed having no knowledge that anything happened in the Gulf. They read a lot, often very quickly. I remember when one read something like 100 pages of Nietzsche in a night. They attend a lot of lectures where smart and insightful things are said frequently. There is mandatory attendance for most classes. Many people here date in a somewhat serious manner. They come from large families where being asked “when are you getting married?” is a question that comes from nearly every family member.

Even here, though, virtually no one has taken an interest in Xenophon. People sometimes ask me about it and then forget what they’ve asked. One gentleman, who I must have told what I’m working on about 30 times over a period of years, still asked recently and I said something completely different.  Now any complaints about my campus – if I have any complaints – would probably hold true for a number of schools. Climates of opinion create expectations and habits. A certain degree of achievement can be had and measured within those climates. Nothing is wrong with this. In fact, it’s essential for the functioning and production of a number of institutions.

Still, when someone like you takes an interest in Xenophon – something I had trouble getting people who do classics to give a damn about – it’s like everything else in the world is insignificant. You were in high school and wondering about women in the ancient world. You certainly had and have a set of activist concerns. And you’re reading about women in Sparta one minute, my little comment on the Oeconomicus the next, about Percy and Mary Shelley later, asking me about Heidegger, telling me about Australian politics and your coursework, and enjoying every minute of it.

You don’t realize how rare a student you are. In my life, I’ve come across only a handful like you. That handful makes the world better many times simply by being themselves. Because there are so many students, quite a few are pale imitations of ones like you and sometimes are well-disguised. There are plenty of people I thought more devoted to bettering themselves who quit when the grades or material rewards diminished, let alone ceased to be around entirely. Being a genuine student – someone who wants to learn what life is about – is far more than hitting the books or even using one’s free time to read. It’s all about the questions one asks.

This critique extends to teachers. You’ve started university and they’ve got lots of information, stimulate lots of discussion. You’re not going to believe this, but most of what you learn are things you would learn on your own anyway. That doesn’t mean to be ungrateful, just as one should never be snob to one’s peers. But it means that for a personality like yours, your learning is your first priority in a way the rest of us can only admire. There are going to be many times where artificial expectations will hold you back from exploring the library, talking to someone worthwhile, going elsewhere to see things firsthand. Your grades may suffer. You might also compose an article or essay that brings injustice to light. You might tell a story that preserves a memory. You might think something that appreciates the truly human.

The most ludicrous aspect of our time is the joining of the words “education” and “business.” This isn’t to say capitalism is bad: the problem has been there longer than the sophists. It is to say that education is an investment in a deeper sense than any of us realize. You are the future. You’re going to show us what a truly intellectual climate can do.

Colin McGinn: “…it is really quite clear that academic philosophy is a science.”

Note: someone pointed out that McGinn’s piece is probably satire. I had suspected this, but was looking for “A Modest Proposal” type reasoning. Still, the acronym he uses for his renaming committee is “C.R.A.P.” Is that enough to make this whole thing a joke?

I’ll admit I’m not the best at spotting jokes. I did feel this piece more tragic than comic, as nothing alluded to the value of philosophy in an age which very much questions that value.

Colin McGinn’s argument that philosophy departments should be renamed is crazy. Why can’t people in philosophy departments say they study philosophy? It’s not like everyone expects people in English departments to write novels.

Still, it’s worth going through some of his observations. They don’t rise to the level of a serious case for what he wants, but they offer grounds for clarifying some issues:

Isn’t everyone employed in a university, and indeed some people beyond, a “lover of wisdom”? Most academics are not “sophists”! Physicists, say, have the attitude described as much as philosophers. But why should one particular discipline be characterized by reference to an attitude instead of a subject matter?

Literally, most academics are sophists. Xenophon’s Socrates repeatedly calls attention to the fact that he doesn’t charge for teaching because he wants to be free to work with whomever he wants to. Still, this is one of McGinn’s better points: there are people who I consider philosophic working in a variety of fields, at a variety of tasks. And philosophy – loving wisdom – is very much an attitude. Unfortunately, there’s the rest of McGinn’s proposal to consider:

(Is a chemist in love with wisdom concerning chemicals?) Moreover, “wisdom” really refers to having good judgment as to how to live one’s life, not to knowledge concerning abstract theoretical matters; and academic philosophy is only partly concerned with wisdom in that sense (ethics, political philosophy). Wisdom means practical wisdom, not scientific understanding. So the original meaning of “philosopher” misdescribes the nature of philosophy as an academic subject.

This shows a very poor understanding of the history of thought – Plato’s Republic in particular. Not that I’m going to hold a philosopher accountable for knowing all that stuff all the time. I’m deficient in key respects myself. But this is bad enough that I’d say I hope students never follow McGinn’s lead here. Sophia (wisdom) is sharply distinguished from techne (art, technique) though both used to mean roughly the same thing once upon a time in Greek. The distinction probably brought any kind of philosophy into being. You can see that very clearly in the Republic without leaning heavily on the terms. “One man, one art” (people with techne) brings the city in speech into discussion, is a ground for natural justice. The philosopher-king (one with sophia) is what you would need to bring it into being. That’s not practical wisdom. That’s theoretical wisdom dictating the practical. You can’t dodge this by saying “well, that’s political philosophy.” If Socrates doesn’t die, then it isn’t clear what we would have of philosophy. The pre-Socratics are fragments for the most part. (Moreover, in Aristotle, prudence and wisdom are again sharply distinguished.)

I’m not saying there aren’t ironies or difficulties all over the place. The point is that McGinn oversimplifies the theoretical/practical problem and wants to rest his case exclusively on what academic philosophy is now. He can’t do this, though, because the core of his thinking is simply laughable:

…it is really quite clear that academic philosophy is a science. The dictionary defines a science as “a systematically organized body of knowledge on any subject.” This is a very broad definition, which includes not just subjects like physics and chemistry but also psychology, economics, mathematics and even “library science.”

See? The dictionary calls academic philosophy a science. The DICTIONARY. It gets better:

We may as well recognize that we are a science, even if not one that makes empirical observations or uses much mathematics. Once we do this officially, we can expect to be treated like scientists.

Ah, that’s what this is about. It’s about securing the money and prestige for the discipline by playing a renaming game that will work with university administrators and pseudo-intellectuals. I obviously don’t think McGinn is completely forthright in his declaration “whether to classify ourselves as a science or an art is strictly not the issue I am considering.” Philosophy is to be renamed with reference to “physics” and “chemistry.” This would be fine with me, if it didn’t threaten the existence of the field and the reading of books much greater than McGinn’s. After all:

…it is quite false that philosophy studies human culture, as opposed to nature (studied by the sciences); only aesthetics and maybe ethics fall under that heading. Metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of mind, philosophy of physics and so on deal not with human culture but with the natural world. We deal with the same things the sciences deal with — the world beyond human culture. To classify philosophy as one of the “humanities” is grossly misleading — it isn’t even much about the human.

It is true that Socrates characterizes philosophy as something inhuman: the practice of dying and being dead. He does this in the Phaedo, a dialogue where he explains his break with Anaxagoras. Anaxagoras held mind a dividing power. This resulted in mind being cause, as the world mind divided couldn’t be assumed a unity except inasmuch mind treated it a unity. Anaxagoras’ books weren’t good natural science, but they consistently gave a scientific-sounding description to the world. Socrates could describe his presence in jail as the arrangement of his bones a certain way. Unfortunately, one has to wonder whether “mind as cause” itself became lost in the process. Wasn’t Socrates in jail for doing philosophy, for having led a life he saw as most just?

What philosophy is about: mind as cause. What is the true unifying and dividing power of mind? Just because the practice of some in academic philosophy today takes on the trappings of scientific inquiry doesn’t mean we should abandon a name much greater than ourselves. It is true the proper study of being may lead to some conclusions far outside the scope of the humanities. It is true the practice of philosophy today seems divorced from much of what goes on in the humanities. It is also true things change, and philosophy has inherited a grand, awesome name. Maybe instead of renaming the field people can start living up to their potential.

“Git ‘r done” and attempting scholarship

A student’s attitude of “get it done” is bad for anyone who wants to teach. It makes a teacher or tutor a human dictionary or encyclopedia. It reduces difficult, intricate themes and questions to bullet points.

But it absolutely destroys what I specifically do: the close, analytical reading and rereading of texts. Everything about what I do is centered around unpacking what could be wisdom slowly but surely. I’m not saying I don’t have an obligation to be clear, or to make some notes on what points could be more useful than others.

I have a significantly higher obligation to my work, though. It is proving to be thoughtful and useful to a number who want to try to grasp something different. It’s time to declare a formal end to tutoring. What I’ve been aiming for is a lot higher than most people assume. I have to believe in my own work enough for it to continue and emerge into something fully worthwhile and beautiful.

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