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Archive for June, 2009

Perfect Changes

with 3 comments

Well, let’s start with–John’s post clarifies a lot of things about this discussion.

John says  I see similarities when he sees diferences, but that’s not entirely accurate.

He sees differences, and  I see evolutions. The differences between  classical Greece and twentieth century New York isn’t the difference between penguins and hummingbirds, but the difference between one stage of evolution and another–of the same animal. 

And my point about the wheel was not that the Greeks invented it, but that the  Egyptians of the Pharonic age didn’t.  No technology, even the simplest, is assured.  Even thriving civiliations whose foundational ideas are friendly to scientific inquiry won’t necessarily invent any basic technology, and once the basic technology is invented whether it develops depends on a number of factors, but especially on those foundational ideas.

My guess, though, is that the primary reason a civilization does not immediately invent technology A, even though technology A is simple and would be useful to them, is that they do not perceive that usefulness.   In a world in which travel is slow, communications are insecure and slow, too, it’s not entirely clear that a way to measure time precisely would have any immediate point.   Natural scientists would want to know how motion worked.  Your everyday Roman mill owner wanted to know how to get his sacks of grain to market before they rotted.

Knowledge for the sake of knowledge–the will to know just because you want to know, and not because it’s “useful”–is the definition of the liberal arts and a very important part of everything else.  

All societies need the technical applications of science desperately, but the connections between those technical applications and the entirely theoretical “pure” research that usually proceeds them isn’t always evident.  

Your ordinary Roman paterfamilias, even a well educated one, probably looked at  Democritus’s speculations about atoms the way some people here look at the study of literature–a nice little hobby, but really pointless, if you think about it.  Much better be practical and study Homer and  Virgil so that you can advance in the Emperor’s service.  

The relationship between Aristotle and Galileo is evolutionary–Aristotle gave birth to the ideas that gave birth to the ideas that gave birth to the ideas that gave birth to Copernicus that gave birth to Galileo.

If we could find a way to allow students to actually replicate the evolution of mammals, instead of just studying about it from the outside, we’d do it in a shot.  In intellectual history, we can do it.   We don’t have to read a textbook telling us how Aristotle is supposed to have given rise to a particular intellectual evolution.  We can read Aristotle and the men (largely) who followed him, we can watch the evolution happen in front of our eyes, we can recreate it and see what it tells us.

Once an evolutionary path gets started, a lot of things affect it.  Yes, the classical world was one of nearly constant war and chaos, not a good place to sit down and think for the sake of thinking, learn for the sake of learning.  It was also a world in which men and women tended to die what we would think of as young, therefore putting an end to a lot of the talent before it had a chance to get anything done. 

But I think that the real issue, in the evolution of ideas that resulted, eventually, in what we now called “science,” was that it looked to most people of the time as a dead end–a lot of silly wondering about stuff that didn’t matter anyway.   There were more pressing problems, like working out the meaning of “justice” and “freedom” in such a way that the relationships between rulers and everybody else could be regularized, so that people could know and trust how their societies would operate, what they could expect from various acts and transactions, for more than a few years or so at a time.  

Even now, if you go to the people at large, there’s a lot of complete incomprehension about pure research.  That’s why we didn’t build that cyclotron.  We’ve had over two hundred yeas of the scientific revolution, and most people still don’t see the point of looking into what a quark is and how it behaves.

Of course, they don’t see the point of looking into the evolution of ethics and morality either (doesn’t everybody already know that stuff? one of my students asked once–she meant that everybody already agreed on what was moral, so there was no point in nattering on about it.  I think she must be having a very interesting, if highly confused, life).

They also don’t see the point of studying literature, which is, you know, just a bunch of stories, and boring stories about people who lived in ancient times or something.  It couldn’t possibly have anything to do with my decision to hook up with the guy with the tattoos tonight, or with figuring out what makes my boss tick so that I can get on better with her and maybe keep my job and get a raise.

I mean, for God’s sake, don’t go on blithering about  Becky Sharpe.   Teach me something practical.

The best way to figure out why Greece and Rome didn’t invent the technologies you want them to is to study Greek and  Roman history, literature, and thought so that you can see how the evolution happened and maybe figure out why.   In terms of replicating that evolution, though, since you’d already have access to the Humanities in their totality, you wouldn’t take nearly as long, since there would be references to the kind of technology you’re talking about and–in people like Liebniz and Newton–even some direction on how to make it.

The other thing the Humanities will tell you is how specific kinds of societies will kill science once it’s started (not just the Islam of the Middle Ages and the Taliban now, but the old Soviet Union) and why and how that happens, which might help you to avoid doing that. 

Of course, in the end, some societies simply choose not to, sometimes quite deliberately. That’s what the Taliban did–they took a good look at what accepting science, technology and all the rest of it would mean, and shut it all down.   And they shut down not only the science, but ver specifically the works of literature, philosophy and history they feared (and they were right) would lead to it.

Ack, I meant to address Cheryl’s flawed heroes–gives me a chance to rant about Achilles, so I’m up for it–and to say something about Gail’s wonderful post, but I’ve got two adolescent boys who want me to cook an enormous turkey for dinner, and since I’m always up for bringing death to turkeys, I’d better go get ready for it.

Okay, so it’s one adolescent boy and one grown man, actually over twenty-one.

But I keep trying to pretend that that last thing hasn’t happened.

Written by janeh

June 21st, 2009 at 6:56 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Land of the Flabbergasted

with 3 comments

Okay, I’ll admit it.  John managed to surprise me.  What he said was:

>>>Linking Galileo and Aristotle together as part of Western Civilization is rather stretching the idea of civilization.

And I’ll admit to not knowing where to start.   But this is a good illustration of why the Humanities are not just “nice to know,” but definitely “need to know.”

No, it’s not stretching the idea of civilization to link Galileo and Aristotle in the same one.   They  ARE in the same one.   Western Civilization starts with the Greeks and comes down to us, and any history of Western Civ that you pick up in a bookstore or a library will present just that sequence over time.   So will any comprehensive college course in “Western Civ.”

What’s more, Galileo is an interesting person to choose in this context, because Galileo’s entire education was based on  Aristotle.   Starting in the high middle ages–around, say, 1200 or so–students in all  Western universities read the works of Aristotle more reverently than they read their Bibles.  Aristotle was the basis of the scientific education Galileo received in university, and the basis of what Galileo’s era believed to be science at all.

In fact, if you go back and read the things Galileo himself wrote, you’ll find that when he wasn’t calling the Pope rude names, he was arguing against using Aristotle’s works as if they constituted a second Bible, and he was specifically arguing that so using them was contrary to the philosophy Aristotle himself had espoused.

Galileo claimed that he himself was a better Aristotelian than his critics, because Aristotle had given the world a way to think, not a set of final and unchallengable answers.

Galileo himself certainly thought that he and Aristotle belonged to the same civilization. 

As to the instruments, in order to invent them you have to approach problems with that very same set of habits of mind that Aristotle in particular proposed and the Greeks in general invented.  Other civilizations, based on other habits of mind, didn’t invent them. Hell, quite a few civilizations out there–the Egyptian, for instance, at least one of the ones in South or Central  America–didn’t even manage to invent the wheel.  They had to be given it, either by the Greeks themselves (Egypt) or the intellectual children of the Greeks (the  Spanish).

Then there’s Newton, who managed to get quite far in the advancement of physics after having had an education that was, again, largely Aristotle.  In fact, “Greek learning” was the basis of almost all university education in the West down to the nineteenth century, and the British maintained it in their public schools well into the twentieth. 

If you’d been a British schoolboy instead of an American one at the turn of the twentieth century, headed for a scientific degree (physics, even) at Cambridge, you’d have spent the years between your eighth birthday and your eighteenth learning to read classical Greek and  Latin and then reading Plato, Aristotle, Sophocles, Virgil, Cicero, and all the rest of them in the original, and you’d have been introduced to mathematics through Euclid and Protagoras.

Of course, you would have read other things as well, including Francis Bacon, and Newton–because those are part of the Humanities, too. 

I’ll say it again.  If the learning of this civilization were to fade away, I’d rather have the scientific learning fade than the learning in the Humanities. Our science is based on those things–philosophy especially–of which the Humanites are comprised, and if we teach our children those Humanities, they will, inevitably, get back to cyclotrons eventually.  

It wouldn’t take as long this time as it did the last, because the books they would read would include Newton and Francis Bacon as well as Aristotle, they would have the benefit of the entire history of ideas and not just what started that history.

A loss of the knowledge of what is in the Humanities, on the other hand, would almost certainly lead to a loss of the knowledge in the natural sciences as well, but in the long drawn out death of those there’d be a loss of something else you’d like to do without even less.

Do you have any idea what the common run of human brutality has been like over the ages, in every single civilization on earth?  The human default mode is not tolerance, respect or justice, it’s a bloodthirsty tribalism the driving sadism of which is breathtaking.

Genocide, like slavery, has been practiced by every civilization on the planet, but Western Civilization invented something essential–we invented the idea that we should be ashamed of it. 

And, in a way, genocide is the least of it.   Genocides are singular, spectacular, deliberate events.  The casual brutality of everyday life in most of the world for most of its history is mindnumbing–the torture for sport of the mentally handicapped by ordinary people just passing in the street; the torture of small animals by those same people, “for fun” (Steven  Pinker gave the example of a common entertainment in medieval England:  you strung a cat up on a string over a fire and laughed as it made funny noises while it was burning to death); the practice (still in full gear in parts of  India) of maiming and multilating more children to make them more likely to receive alms when begging.  

I do not think that the Humanities can make us better people, in the sense of changing who and what we are into something nobler or finer or better.  I do think that they are part of creating a cultural climate in which some things come to be seen as so automatically “wrong” that the very lack of  public support for them makes them less likely to happen.

We’re less likely to commit genocide if we know we ought to be ashamed of it.  We’re less likely to kick the kick with Down’s Syndrome if we know we ought to be ashamed of that.  That does not mean that those things will stop entirely.  It does mean that they will happen less often, and the world tha makes us ashamed of those things is a very different one–in real, everyday lived experience–from one that does not.

Civilization is something we do–we have to choose it deliberately, and instill it into our children, over and over again, one at a time, without end.  Fall down on the job even a little, and it all goes to hell.

Science is a wonderful thing, and it’s given me things I’d rather not do without.  But science is the child of this particular civilization, not the other way around, and without that civilization science would cease to exist. 

If I’ve got to lose the collected knowledge of one or the other–science or the Humanities–I’ll keep the Humanities, because the Humanities will eventually lead to a rebrith of science, but the sciences will not lead to a birth of the  Humanities.

And without he Humanities, the science will die as well.  It will just take a while.

Written by janeh

June 20th, 2009 at 6:51 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Necessary and Sufficient Conditions

with one comment

Cheryl points out that a conflict between reason and religion is not the issue in all cultures, and of course she’s right.   You’ll notice I said nothing about the cultures of Asia, where issues tend to revolve around concepts of tradition and authority rather than revelation and the interpretation of revelation.  But revelation and the interpretation of revelation was the primary issue for the three cultures involved, so much so that, in choosing sides,  Judaism largely folded intself into a larger Western culture, and is there still.

But I do think that the issue should be framed not as a conflict between reason and religion, but as an issue of interpretation of revealed texts and ideas–if you have physical evidence that X is true, and your particular scripture says that Y is true instead (or seems to),  how do you resolve that conflict?

The whole framing of this problem as a war between “reason” and “religion” is inaccurate, because certain kinds of religion depend heavily on reason–Thomas Aquainas was a lot of things, but he was not an irrational and superstitious man.

John says that the difference between cultures that develop science and those that don’t is “openess (or lack of it) to change,” but I don’t think that that’s entirely accurate either. All cultures are open to change to one degree or another.  I think the real determinant is the basis on which change is seen to be imperative.

So, yes, I do think that there is a set of ideas the existence of which as the framing ideas of a culture ensures that a scientific revolution is inevitable, although it make take a long time coming. 

Those ideas are:

1) it is a good, legitimate and moral thing to apply human reasoning to the study of the world and of man in the world

2) in any conflict between material evidence and some other claimed form of authority or truth, it is the material evidence that must be heeded

3) in any conflict between the individual human mind and the will of the state, the people, the religious authorities, you name it, it is entirely possible that the individual is right and all the others are wrong AND it is the only moral and admirable course for the individual to hold to what he believes is true even if he’s the only one who believes it

4) that the principle in (3) is true EVEN IF the individual is wrong–what’s called, in Roman Catholicism, “the principle of the primacy of conscience.”

Given those four ideas embedded in the narrative of your civilization, and you WILL develop science.  You practically can’t help yourself.

Those are, as well, the ideas embedded in the Humanities, which is why I say I’d rather lose the sciences than the Humanities. 

I don’t mean that every thinker in the history of Western thoughts since the Greeks has upheld those principles, they haven’t.   And your ordinary general run of people often get enormously annoyed with them.  Various kinds of authority often hate them.

But the overall march of the Humanities since they first arose in  Greece in the fourth or fifth century BC has been the narrative, played out in countless books and essays and plays and poems and lives, of those four principles.

What we need is not some overall lecture course saying “here’s the things we find that we believe to be true–Capitalism is good and Cmommunism is bad (or vice versa). ”

What we need is the example, example after example, of individual men and women proposing new ideas and defending them against opposition and criticism, sometimes winning, sometimes losing.  We need to see them do it over and over and over again, because it’s the process that’s important.

It’s a truism in science that all knowledge is tentative–that we must always be open to the possibility that what we know today will turn out, tomorrow, to be wrong.  Apply that principle to the Humanities, however, and  people get very uncomfortable–if the Humanities represented real knowledge, shouldn’t they come to some conclusions, shouldn’t they settle their arguments and say that one thing is right and the other is wrong, absolutely, finally?

Robert once complained to me that the history of philosophy oftens seems to be an argument between  Aristotle and Plato that just goes on and on and never stops. 

But Aristotle and Plato don’t argue over whether the state is something that’s come down to us from ancestors and should be accepted as is, or whether it’s something ordained by  God that we must receive and not question.

Both Aristotle and Plato believe that the state is something men do, and that they can and should do it deliberately, by thinking out what would make government good and then constructing those institutions deliberately. 

Like two guys who are arguing over whether to build a road or a nuclear power plant, they both accept the principles of enginering.  They’re just arguing over what they should do about them. Consider the difference between both these men and a man who wants to build both–but by building a temple to the gods and offering them a few sacrificial virgins.

One more note, to close:  I think that the constant assumption that Islamic society was “advanced” in the Middle Ages and then deteriorated is about half true.

First, most of the Islamic thinkers who concerned themselves with “Greek learning” lived in what is now Spain, that is, well away from the major centers of Islamic power.  It’s by no means clear that those centers were ever “advanced” in the sense we’re using that word.

Second, the old canard that the West had to have the works of Aristotle and Plato and their brethern returned to them by Islamic scholars is, simply, false. 

Many copies of those works existed in remote monasteries across the West right through the four hundred years of social collapse that followed the end of the Roman Empire.

More importantly, however, the copies of those works that came from the East did not come from Islamic scholars, but from Byzantine ones, Greek Christians who had been preserving them in churches, monasteries and hidden libraries from a Muslim government that destroyed them whenever it found them and whenever it could.  

When these Greek Christians fled West to escape religious persecution, they brought with them as many manucripts as they could carry, and those manuscripts became the basis for the incredible intellectual ferment of the Middle Ages.

This is, I think, another one of those instances where some people decide that anything the West does is wrong, and therefore other people must really have done whatever it is that we seem to have.

And that sentence should be shot, but I need more tea.

Written by janeh

June 19th, 2009 at 8:08 am

Posted in Uncategorized

AMA, or, to Be More Accurate, IMA

with 2 comments

John thinks there’s something wrong with what I’m saying because if I put an Italian and an Icelander next to a !Kung tribesman, I’d also notice their similarities more than their differences.

And, of course, I would.  Italians and Icelanders are both Westerners, albeit from two different branches of the larger enterprise called Western Civilization.   Two Westerners will have more similarities than either will have with a (traditional) Asian or South  Asian, and more differences than they would have with another person from their own country.   You can trace the branches and twigs down to very fine points indeed, so that in spite of the fact that the culture of the United States and the culture of modern Greece both derive from the culture of classical Athens, my cousins will always feel like foreigners in Greece because by now they are foreigners.

But Cheryl is wrong if she thinks I was saying that some cultures do not change or are not open to change–all cultures change, some of them (the larger and more literate ones) almost continually.

When people say “we’ve always done it this way,” what they usually mean is “this is the way I remember it being done, so it must be the way we’ve always done it.”  That leaves quite a lot of room for fluctuations and variations and even wholescale turnabouts.

The issue isn’t whether or not cultures change, but the basis on which they see change as being legitimate.  Having to defend the innnovation you want to make–like ending slavery–by resorting to “this is how we’ve always done it” or “this is what the Koran says is okay” has different results than being able to argue “this is what makes sense even if we’re not used to it.”   It has results that go beyond the argument in question.  It’s an entirely different–and until very recently (say the last four centuries) entirely novel way of looking at the world.

There’s a question, of course, about how far two branches of a culture can diverge before they become entirely separate cultures.   Robert has argued that the split between the United States and Europe is now that wide.  I would disagree, for a number of reasons.

But there have been times when such widely divergent branching has occurred, and some of them have been vitally important for the world we live in now.

Consider AMA–Averroes, Maimonides, and Aquinas.  Or, to be more culturally accurate,  Ibn Rshd, Maimonides, and Aquinas.  Averroes was the name Ibn Rshd was known by in the Latin West.

These three men were all important intellectual figures in the Middle Ages, although they were not exactly contemporary.  Averroes (Ibn Rshd) was a  Muslim living in the Iberian peninsula.  Maimonides was a rabbi and Talmudic scholar living in (eventually) Morocco.   Aquinas was a Catholic monk of the Dominican order living in the Italian peninsula.

Each of these three men served, for their culture and their religion, as the interpreter and reconciliator of what was then called “Greek learning”–the works of Plato and Aristotle, mostly, and the ways in which those works could or could not be fit into each man’s particular cultural and religious commitments.

All these men were geniuses, really, and there’s a lot on the web about them if you want to go look.  I find Averroes (Ibn Rshd) a particularly fascinating figure for a number of reasons, one of them probably being that, unlike Aquinas,  I wasn’t ever required to read great heaping books of his in Latin.

Right now, though, what’s important is not so much what these men did, as how their societies  responded to their doing it.

Maimonides took some flack from the  Jewish religious community, but in the end it came around, Maimonides got the reputation of being the greatest Talmudic scholar in history, and Judaism adopted the many of the methodologies and assumptions of classical Athenian culture–the primacy of logic and evidence over mere authority or tradition most of all. And when they did that, they also adopted Maimonides core assumption Greek (meaning secular) learning–that it was compatible with, and no danger to, religion.

Much the same happened with Aquinas, except that, given the greaterrecourse to centralized authority in the Medieval Christian church, it was even more so.  The Church authorities were driven nearly crazy by Aquinas, and the man died on his way to yet another inquiry about his religious Orthodoxy, but in the end, the Church accepted both his thesis–that “Greek (secular) learning” was compatable with and no danger to religion–and his work.  In fact, they turned him into the greatest and most influential intellectual figure in the history of Latin Christianity.

Ibn Rshd (Averroes) was not so lucky.  Not only was he harrassed throughout hiw life by religious authorities, but the final determination was definite and uncompromising–he was wrong.  Greek (secular) learning was not compatible with religion, and as in fact a great danger to it, and would have to be vigorously suppressed.

At which point, the Muslim world retreated from the position it had established as one of the most learned socities of the Medieval world and opted for–well, for what we’ve got now.  That was the point at which everything that has happened since, right down to the riots this week in the streets of  Tehran, became damned near inevitable.

Ideas have consequences, as the man said, and this particular idea–that secular learning is valid and good, and that it is compatible with and need not destroy even a revealed religion–was the idea necessary to develop science as we understand it, but also a great deal more. 

Put two societies together, one of which accepts this idea and one of which does not, and the one that accepts this idea will be rich and the other will be poor.   The Jews took over a Godforsaken patch of desert in the Middle East, the one patch that didn’t even have any oil under it, and they were richer than any of their neighbors in a matter of mere decades.  And not because we were pumping money into them, either, because various Western countries were pumping money into all kinds of Middle Eastern ones, and some of those Middle Eastern ones were getting rich off oil.

Consider this:  in Saudi Arabia there are state of the art medical facilities, but they’re largely staffed and run by Western doctors; there are complicated engineering projects, also largely staffed and run (on the design and administrative ends) by  Westerners.

Aquinas said, and it became Roman  Catholic dogma, that there is only one truth, that if there seems to be a conflict between science and religion, it’s because we’re misinterpreting something.  That paved the way not only for science, but for wholesale change in religion itself, and especially in the reading and interpreting of the  Bible.   In made both the Renaissance and the Reformation possible, and it goes a long way to explain what is happening today in our arguments about creationism and evolution.

Ideas matter.  The history of ideas really matters.  And to answer Robert’s question, no, the history of ideas should not be taught in the history department.

More on why not, tomorrow.

Written by janeh

June 18th, 2009 at 9:27 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Culture, Anarchy, and Everything Else

with 2 comments

Let me see if I  can backtrack a little here and do this in order.

John wants to know how I’m using the word “culture,” since to him it means things like music and art, and a Wall Street CEO and an assembly line worker would have two entirely different cultures.  He also wants to know if it isn’t possible that certain “elites” in the West just happened to find the scientific method, by accident.

So, to culture first–I’ve been trying for most of two days to find a succinct definition that I could use here without needing to send everybody to the history of anthropology–but the best I’ve been able to do (and it’s got holes in it) is that culture is a set of factors–assumptions about the nature of the world and the human being; habits of mind; customary and literate references (if the culture in question is literate at all)–shared by a geographically cohesive group of people or peoples.

Like I said, that’s got holes in it, but it will do for a start.   Not only do the Wall Street  CEO and the assembly line worker not have entirely different cultures, but they are so distinctly Western (and probably distinctly American) that they’d be recognizable anywhere else on the planet with no trouble at all.

I’ve got cousins who are 100% ethnically Greek in spite of being born and brought up here, but the genes don’t matter a damn.  Set them down in Athens, and every Greek can nail them as Americans without ever hearing them say a word.  Americans walk differently than even other Westerners, and Westerners walk differently, use different body language and approach problems differently than the members of any other civilization.

The differences between a Wall Street  CEO and an assembly line worker look vast only when we compare them to each other without taking into account the other cultures in the world.  Put both of them next to a !Kung tribesman or a Yemeni Muslim, and their similarities become entirely clear.

Even differences that look vast on the surface often turn out to be less so as you look into them.  As an article on Arts and Letters  Daily pointed out a while ago, even our Biblical fundamentalists assume that they can, and should, prove the literal truth of the Genesis account of creation by reference to material evidence outside scripture–that scripture and authority are not enough. 

Western Civilization starts in Greece because Greece where philosophy first arose.   Robert said to me once that he lumped philosophy in with theology, but the point of philosophy is precisely that it is not theology.  Philosophy says that we can know the world by studying the world, without references to anything (like a supernatural deity, or magic) outside the world.  Revelation does not matter.  We can understand how the world works, and how we work, by reason alone.

This does not mean, of course, that philosophy is necessarily atheistic, in the strong sense of declaring that God (or the gods) do not exists.   It simply declares the existence of God to be outside the realm of what it studies, and then it just ets the question go.  Individual philosophers have been everything from militant atheists to devout  Roman  Catholic monks.  It just doesn’t matter.

What does matter is that this assumption–that we can understand the world, and ourselves, by reference to the world alone, by reason, and without revelation–is the necessary foundation of anything we would now call science, and it is an assumption not shared by or developed by any other civilization on earth.

Without this assumption, we could never have developed the scientific method, and having this assumption, it was inevitable that, given enough time, we would develop the scientific method.

Virtually everything we think of as an academic subject began first as philosophy.  What we now call the “natural sciences” began as “natural philosophy,” and although some of that natural philosophy was speculation about the nature of being (which is probably what Robert thinks of as like theology), an awful lot of it was more familiar.

Aristotle collected examples of plant and animal life from all over the world and insisted that natural philosophy required observation of the world to be of value.  Theophrastus, who lived around 310 BC, is still considered the “founder of botany” because of his lifelong attempts to observe, categorize and classify what he hoped would be all the plants in the world, plus trying to grow as many as he could in a vast garden he used to make notes and observations about how things grew, how they differed, how they could and could not be cultivated.

Even the endless chitter chattering about ‘Being” which drives so many people crazy was just the first stab at what would later become particle physics.  We haven’t stopped trying to find what it m eans for something “to be,” or what reality is made of, we just do it with cyclotrons these days.

Ancient philosophers, though, didn’t confine themselves to finding a science of plants and animals and the  Ground of Being.  As far as they were concerned, reason could be applied to all aspects of life, including art and morality, and all aspects of life were as open to study as the nature of plants and animals, or the operations of the heavens.

Aristotle was the first literary critic (in the academic, not the book reviewer, sense), and he gave us the first systematic non-religious examination of what it means to be “good,” to be moral.

John said that a lot of ancient societies seem to have been slave societies, but there is no “seems” about it.  Every single literate society that has ever existed on this planet has kept slaves, and the idea that there was something wrong with this, and that it should be stopped, doesn’t show up until the nineteenth century.

Even then, it shows up only in the Anglophone sphere, in England and America and Canada, the children of the English (sometimes called the Scottish) Enlightenment.  Britain had an empire at the time, and a big one, and the rest of the world ended up bowing to her when she insisted on suprressing the slave trade.

But slavery exists even today, mostly in Muslim nations in Africa, and those societies by no means accept the Western prescription that such behavior is wrong.   In fact, the weaker the West looks–or is made to look by the kind of idiots who declare that there are no universal rights and every culture is just as good as any other–the more frequent become the declarations ofthe “right” of socities to choose slavery. 

And they don’t argue on the West’s terms, either.  Western creationists feel the need to at least look like they’re presenting evidence for what they believe.  Non-Western advocates of slavery just say “we’ve always done it this way, it’s our tradition” and “the  Koran says it’s okay and you don’t have any right to question it.”  

The interesting thing about Western civilization is not that it once condoned slavery, it’s that it gave it up.  Robert will tell you that that was largely due to Christianity, and he’s right–but Christianity itself is a part of the West, and it didn’t start out opposed to slavery any more than Rome did.   It got there by applying the Western philosophical approach to questions of morality rather the way lawyers apply legal reasoning to the law. 

And that approach made all the difference in the world. 

Which I think I’ll get to tomorrow, with any luck.

Written by janeh

June 17th, 2009 at 6:21 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Dropping Like Flies

with 3 comments

Okay, that’s not exactly nice.  Or sensitive.  Or something.  Bu when I get really weirded out, I start to gigle.

I do want to get back to all the things we’ve been sort of talking about–especially whether I, as a taxpayer, am getting my money’s worth when it’s spent on public “universities” that provide only theoreteically “practical” programs–but I will point out here that when administrators say they’re being practical, they don’t mean they’re keeping those programs that have real utility in the real world.  What they mean is that they’re keeping those programs that attract a lot of students as majors.  If entrail diviination pulled in packed classrooms and forty graduates a year, they’d throw money at it in fist fulls.

That said, here’s my minor little mystery for today, because it’s on my mind.

My college’s alumnae magazine came yesterday, and in it there were two short and uninformative notices that one of the women I’d known best in my years in Poughkeepsie had died, this last December 21st.

Now, I hadn’t seen this woman in over a decade.  I think the last time I talked to her at any length was when  Bill was diagnosed with cancer.  And it wasn’t as if the announcement was necessarily a big shock, since when  I knew her she smoked between two and three packs of cigarettes a day.

It wasn’t, in other words, a big emotional deal, really, just a little creepy, until  I got an e-mail from a mutual friend this morning, saying that he had googled to see if he could get some information and ended up with finding nothing but two newspaper articles about a woman with “the same name” who lived in the same town having a series of traffic accidents.

Now, this woman imigrated from India at a young age, and her name–Renu Narang–is not usual.  I couldn’t see what was confusing this guy–if there were stories about a Renu Narang having traffic accidents in Westport, Connecticut, then it almost certainly had to be the same Renu Narang.   It wasn’t likely that there would be two people with that name in one of the most heavily WASP enclaves in the United States.

Then I googled myself, and I saw what his problem was.  The woman in the stories was reported as being “62 years old,” which would make her almost five years older than the rest of us.

The age difference is weird–if it had been only a couple of years older than the rest of us, I don’t think  I’d have thought anything of it.   There often gets to be a lag in educational attainment when people immigrate.  And if the age had been much higher, I’d have just assumed it was her mother the stories were talking about.

Common sense says that this must be the same person, but it’s still odd.

And what’s odder still is the content of the reports themselves.  The incidents are the kind of thing you’d expect to hear about a DUI–first, backing into a lot of cars in a parking lot, then jumping the sidewalk and crashing into the side of a bank–but there was no mention of alcohol in any of the reports, and if the police had suspected that alcohol was involved, there would almost certainly have been mention of it.

The incidents, as reported, read almost like the start of a murder mystery, especially so because nobody seems to have been high.  I can see it all as the opening to a Miss Marple.

In the day to day world, though, it’s most certainly something mundane–a series of small strokes, maybe (her mother had a very major stroke very young–or even small heart attacks.  The second of the incidents occurred on December 9th, and she was dead twelve days later.  There doesn’t seem to be an obituary available on line, and the notice in the alumnae magazine was stark and uninformative.   She died.  She was living with and taking care of her disabled parents.  End of story.

This makes the second death among people I knew in college that is strange in its details–one woman was murdered–and about the tenth among people I knew, period.  The rest of them, though, were fairly mundane–one young woman had an aneurism in her thirties, a couple of the earliest co-ed admits died of AIDS, one woman had breast cancer–and it’s a little odd to think that so many people who were relatively young have died. 

But I  knew this woman better than I knew any of the rest, and the details are very odd.

Information blackouts always do strange things to my head.

Written by janeh

June 16th, 2009 at 7:29 am

Posted in Uncategorized

A Sort of Strange Interlude

with 7 comments


This  is going to be a shortish, odd kind of post.

I finished my book today, really finished it, sent copies off to a bunch of people who can help do things like tell me if it makes any sense, so my first inclination was to go running around the house yelling “whee!” and indulging in things like America’s Next Top Model marathons–the  Oxygen network has them on  Sundays. They’re very convenient.

I had a list of things I meant to cover today, because we’re in the middle of one of those cycles where I’ve got something I want to get to, but there are things that need to be cleaned up.

For instance:  Lee seems to have gotten the impression that I got my undergraduate degree from the University of  Michigan.  I didn’t.  I went to  Vassar, then went out to  Michigan for grad work.  I got my undergraduate degree from  Vassar.

And my class and the one ahead of it had something of an advantage, because those were the years that the law and  med schools dropped their uotas for women admits and the businesses were all looking to hire women to prove they weren’t discriminating on the basis of sex, just in case the  ERA  passed.  Being the most famous women’s college in the US–even if we were in the middle of going co-ed–made us a magnet for everybody looking for “qualified” women.

But yes, of course, the economy makes a difference.  It always does.

And there were other things, too, for instance Robert’s comment that reading French novels is just “a bonus” from studying French–if you major in a language at the university level, reading the novels (and poetry and drama) isn’t the bonus, it’s the entire point of the major.  Learning the language is what your department will consider a side issue.

A degree in French or German–or  Farsi, or Chinese, or Arabic–is first and foremost a literature degree. 

And for reasons that make sense, if you think about it–a “culture” is by and large the product of its canon.  That’s why its canon IS its canon.   This is what a culture things of as the best that has been thought and said among its people.

What’s more, that canon of imaginative literature is also the repository of the narrative of that culture.  And a culture’s narrative is that culture’s identity. 

I don’t understand why this is such a difficult concept for some people to accept, or why so many people out there seem to think that it makes perfect sense to simply ignore large segments of the human experience–most of it, in fact–because those segments cannot be investigated with the same tools, or in the same way, we pursue the nature of the atom or the sixe of the solar system.

But, like I said, I’m having a hard time keeping my mind on this today.

I don’t know why I respond to finishing the writing of a book the way I do, because when I finish  a book I’m reading, I tend to be disappointed.  At least,  I am if the book is one  I’ve enjoyed, and I enjoy writing.  I enjoy writing so much that I do it even when I’m not being paid for it.  When  I finish writing a book, though,  I tend to feel that I’ve just gotten over a cold, or something–whee!  I’m free!

Go figure.

But today, I kept walking around waiting to feel “whee!” and mostly feeling just odd, and then  I figured it out.

It’s June 14th.

If my brother was still alive, he’d be 55 years old today.

Written by janeh

June 14th, 2009 at 5:12 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

A Couple of Things

with 4 comments

Okay, I’ve been working a lot today, and I wasn’t going to post, because I’m exhausted, but yesterday’s comments have me going.

First, for John’s benefit, the tier rankings are done by US News and World  Report, and they’re quite up front and transparent about their rating system.  The system they use is heavily weighted towards selectivity–towards the percentage of applicants a university accepts or rejects. 

This goes a long way to explain why graduates of first tier universities do better than graduates in the other tiers when it comes to finding a job.  Employers aren’t really looking for what an applicant has studied, except in very specific occupations.   They’re looking for raw talent.

You should know that there are separate rankings for universities and colleges–in the American sense of a college as an undergraduate institution giving bachelor’s degrees only (not masters or doctorates)–and colleges are not asked how many PhDs they grant.

That said, I’v’e pointed out here several times that most of the readers of this blog who comment are REALLY far behind in understanding what has happened to the undergraduate student population.

Forty years ago, whether you went to Vassar or the University of Connecticut was a big deal.  These days, not nearly so much. 

Most of the students who attend the institution where my program is would not have gone to college at all when  I went.  They’d have graduated from high school in the “business” course or the “general education” course and stopped there.

And West Podunk State University is not code for the University of Michigan.  It’s not even code for Michigan State.

What is now West Podunk State University either didn’t exist at all when we all went to college, or it was something called West Podunk Teacher’s College. 

These days, it almost certainly has open admissions–anybody with a high school diploma or a GED is automatically admitted, first come first served, no matter how  bad your grades are or how low your board scores.  

You don’t have to worry about me talking the students at  West Podunk into majoring in classics or English lit, because neither major is offered there.   Maors are various business rograms (business administration, marketing, management) and staples like nursing and teaching certification.

And I will reiterate–most of the students at places like this are being royally ripped off.  They are NOT learning marketable skills, and they are NOT putting themselves on track for better or steadier jobs.  At best, they’re just paying out of pocket for the education their parents’ taxes already paid for them to get in high school.  At worst, they’re just spinning their wheels and wasting money they don’t have.

But the kicker, really, of all the comments yesterday, was this one of Robert’s:

>>>>>Which does not mean a lot of “practical” majors aren’t rip-offs. But the accountant, the architect, the engineer and the master of a foreign language, to name only a few have mastered useful trades, none of them incompatible with studying history, literature or philosophy.

First, I never said people shouldn’t study to acquire useful skills, or that such study was “incompatible” with studying history, literature or philosophy.

In fact, I think, several posts ago, I sang the praises of the Great  American Multiversity and of the original concept of the land grant institutions as places where we’d produce engineerings and Aggies who also read Plato.

But of Robert’s list, all but the engineer and the “master of a foreign language” require graduate work–you can’t become an architect at all a bachelor’s alone, and if you want to be an accountant (and not just a bookkeeper) the chances are good that you’re going to have to get an MBA. 

(Note to Cheryl, re something youo said in a previous post:  in the  US, you can’t study law right out of high school.   You have to have a bachelor’s degree to get into law school.  And the degree can be pretty much in anything.)

As for foreign languages–well, they’re Humanities.  And just why anyone would think you’d get more for your money reading French novels than English ones is beyond me.

But Robert sas he’s never regretted majoring in history (another niche in the Humanities), and I majored in English and never regretted it either.  Even on a purely utilitarian level, that’s the route to go if you want to work at a national publishing house or on a national magazine, and if you want to go to work on an important newspaper or for one of the news networks, you’re more likely to be successful with a bachelor’s in English (or philosophy) and a master’s from one of the big name journalism schools than you will be majoring in “jouralism” as an undergraduate. 

But the kids I’m talking about aren’t going to do any of those things.  They’re not going to Vassar, and they’re not going to Michigan State.  They’re not even going to the University of North Dakota.  They’re at places called Herkimer County Community College and Mattatuck State University, and they’ll never see the inside of a calculus class.  They’re too busy taking “college algebra,” which is the same algebra we all took as high school freshmen–and the same algebra my sons have taken as high school freshmen, too.

These are not the kids who went to no-name state places when you and I all graduated from high school.  These are the kids who dropped out of high school as soon as they turned sixteen.

We’re now pushing these kids through the system on vastly dumbed down standards and then sending them to “colleges” that aren’t that. 

I really am going to get to science, slavery, Theophrastus and the rest eventually.

Written by janeh

June 13th, 2009 at 8:02 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

A Little Light Housekeeping

with 7 comments

So, okay, let me try to address some of this stuff in some sort of at least half-assedly systematic way.

First, the issue of employers continuing to demand college degrees even after the standards for high school graduation have been raised, if only to whittle down the number of candidates, fails to take into account what should be obvious–if we raise the standards for high school graduation, fewer people will graduate from high school.

The reason high school graduation standards were dumbed down in the first place was to make sure more people graduated from high school.  We made a commitment to bring the rate up to as close to 100% as possible, and when we found out that we were having no success in actually raising the skill levels of our student population, we just changed the standards and declared them “high school graduates” anyway.

The result was that even fewer people reached the skills level we used to associate with high school graduation, because it’s not possible to dumb down the curriculum for one set of people without dumbing it down for others.  When you do that, it gets obvious that you do that, and the pressure is on to dumb down every new wrinkle so that more people will be able to “achieve” it.  Gifted and talented programs are either eliminated entirely or given criteria so subjective and squishy that who gets in is a matter of whose parents exert the most pressure.  Honors and  AP programs are run at levels good whacking hunks of the student population can handle.

Of course, this tends to vary with location.   There are a number of public high schools down on the Connecticut Gold Coast that deliver high school educations the equal of anything in the  Thirties, and the equal even of competitive selective entry prep schools like Exeter.  They happen to be in communities with virtually no “affordable housing,” in other words, with no poor people and not many working class people either.  

These are places where the median price of a house is better than half a million dollars, nearly all the parents will have gone not just to colleges but to “name” colleges and most will have advanced degrees.  There’s no pressure to dumb down the curriculum because there’s no need to in order to get 99% of their kids to graduate–and 85% to go on to four year colleges. 

Bring the standards for high school graduation up, fewer people will graduate from high school, employers will be able to use a high school diploma for sorting purposes and pretty much get–just the same people they’re getting now by  demanding “college degrees” in things like marketing and business administration.

As for first tier American colleges, I agree that not having gone to one does not cut you off from great success, if you’re the kind of person with the ambition and the talent to go after it.  In fact, there’s something called the “second tier advantage”–the people who are mostly likely to make really spectacular successes of themselves tend not to go to first tier universities, because entry into those has become so cutthroat that there isn’t much room for the Steven Spielbergs of this world, the kids who fail everything but X because X is what they love. 

Spielberg, by the way, went to Cal State  Long  Beach.

And dropped out in his sophomore year.

But most of you seem to think that a “first tier university” has to mean the Ivy League.  It doesn’t.

Cheryl says she’s never met anyone who’s gone to a first teir US universit, but she’s wrong.  If you include the people she’s met online, she knows at least three, me,  Janet from  RAM–and Robert.

The University of Indiana is a first tier university, although it’s in the bottom half of the first tier.  The University of Texas at Autin is not only in the first tier, it’s in the first half of the first tier, and well into it.  

In fact, Texas/Austin  is one of what are called the Public Ivies–Michigan, UCLA, UC-Berkeley, UNC-Chapel Hill, Illinois, I don’t remember what else.  The Public Ivies are Public Ivies only in their colleges of arts and sciences–that is, in the division which teach the liberal arts–but since it’s the liberal arts we’re talking about, those are their relevant divisions anyway.

The first tier includes the Ivy League, but also the  Seven Sisters, the Little Three, the Public Ivies and a little handful of other places (Chicago, Johns Hopkins, Duke, Stanford, Northwestern).

The days when the division was between “name” private colleges and “just” state schools is long gone.

And I agree with Robert–I think getting a useful skill is definitely the way to go for most kids.  What I was arguing was whether or not they were in fact getting those skills.  and, by and large, they’re not.   The “practical” majors offered by schools that claim to specialize in them do not in general help people find work, and really do not help them find work they can count on. 

They’re largely aimed at the very kind of white collar desk job that’s increasingly being exported to India and other lower-wage countries.  The kid who goes $20,000 into debt to get a “business admistration” degree from his local state college has been ripped off, big time.  He’d have had a better income, and more assurance of it, if he’d become a plumber.

But I’m not,  I’m really not, suggesting that everybody should run off and spend God knows what kind of money getting degrees in philosophy.   I’m trying to do two things.

First, to defend the study of the Humanities as absolutely necessary to know (not just “want to know”).

Second, to encourage it outside the channels of academia, which is where it was for most of the history of Western civilization.

But I think I’d better leave Theophrastus and the birth of science, along with other things, until tomorow.

I’m at that point ini the book where I’m making sure the explanations make sense, which m eans this thing is virtually done.


Written by janeh

June 12th, 2009 at 9:57 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Dirty Little Secrets

with 6 comments

Someties I don’t write this blog because I’m backed up with work, and sometimes I don’t write it because I don’t seem to have something to say.

But today, I have so much to say, and it’s so difficult to organize, that I barely know where to start.

Let me put aside a few issues for a later post, first. 

To begin with,  I  wasn’t suggesting that anybody should actually spend $25,000 a year or more on a college education.  The issue was whether or not a thorough grounding in the liberal arts–Humanties AND Social Sciences AND Natural Sciences–would be worth that much, and it would be.   In point of fact, the only people who pay that kind of money for college are kids with very rich parents and very bad grades.  Virtually anybody else will get enough financial aid to reduce the cost of the trip to more more than $8000 even at the most expensive places.

It also hadn’t occured to me to envision a sudden collapse of science in the way people here did.  I was thinking more in terms of a gradual retreat over time, not a violent dislocation.  And I’m well aware of the fact that the Greeks and Romans of the classical period lacked virtually all our technology, and yet still weren’t mired in universal resistance farming.  Nor was learning restricted to the rich.   In classical Athens, especially, it was largely the  preoccupation of the emergent middle class.

Then there’s the issue of whether or not the scientific method was “accidentally” discovered by an “elite.”  It’s the kind of statement that makes me all the more convinced that we should have a required overview of this stuff on the high school level, if only so that people could get this history of ideas more or less straight.  No, there was nothing accidental about it.  And since students of the Humanities would study not just literature, painting and music, but philosophy and history, and since philosophy included Natural  Philosophy until very recently, and since natural philosophy is what we later decided to call “natural science” instead–okay, I’ll do that later.  It’s an interesting subject.

But right now, I want to address the contention that studying the Humanities means ending up flipping burges, while studying something “practical” will get you a job.

And my response to that is this:  outside a small set of fields with specific credentialing requirements (nursing, accounting)–no, it won’t.

Lee says everybody she knew who graduted with a degree in the Humanities ended up flipping burgers, and it might well be true–but I also graduated from college in the Seventies, and NONE  of the people I knew who graduated in the Humanities ended up flipping burgers.  Or anything like it.

In fact, I went to one of those colleges where it is impossible to sudy anything practical.  You couldn’t even get a teaching certificate.  There was no “education” major.  There was no nursing, no business, no accounting–it was Humanities, Social Sciences, Natural Sciences, period.

And yet, a good dozen of the people in the class ahead of mine made a story in Time magazine about the excessively high starting salaries being paid to new college graduates.  They’d majored in things like English,  Philosophy and Art History and they were hired by big banks, New York publishing firms, multimedia corporations of all kinds, and on and on and on.

Of the women who graduated from the Vassar College English department when I did, not counting the ones who went on to law school, two are now executive editors of New York publishing houses, one was for many years the South American Bureau Chief for Newsweek, several have been reporters for the New York Times and one is now on the editorial board there, one was hired right out of college as a management consultant and ended up a partner at a Big Eight accounting firm (although not an accountant).

I could go on, but the actual situation is simple–outside a few specific areas, most employers care far less about what you stud than where you studied it. 

The women I knew who got hired for the Times and the Washington Post and Newsweek and Vogue and wherever all beat out applicants with “jouranlism” degrees from less prestigious colleges.  

And the news gets worse the longer you look at it.  In the month before graduation, out campus as inundated with corporate recruiters.  They hired English majors, philosophy majors, art history majors–and then the companies promptly shelled out for an MBA at “someplace good” (like Harvard).

Those people were on track in jobs that at least theoretcially could lead to upper management.  Down the road, these same companies were hiring business majors of various sorts at the SUNY campus, but those hirees didn’t get their MBAs paid for (or the paid time off to finish them), and the track they got hired for had no chance at all of promotion to upper management.

One of the things that drives me the most crazy about the higher education system in the US is this idea that somehow you’re being “practical” to major in business administration or journalism or marketing or whatever, that that path leads to “a good job” and “job security.”

It doesn’t, and the marketing of higher education of that kind as a “practical” path to a “good job” is one of the biggest and most unconscionable scams in American history.

First, to the extent that you need any kind of “college” education at all to get most of the jobs that go to people who major in things like “business administration” and “marketing” at lower-tier universities, you need it because you’re not geing taught what used to be taught in high school.

Get a bachelor’s degree in accounting from East  Podunk U, and you’ll get hired as what used to be called a bookkeeper—a job no different than, and with no better long term prospects than, you could have had right out of high school fifty years ago.

The only real difference, to you as a student, is that the training you needed to get that job was a lot more expensive, and had to come out of your pocket and show up in your life as student loans. 

If you want to actually get anywhere, you’ll have to go back to school and get an MBA.  You’ll have to pay for that, too, and you’ll have to do it at night, which means that the chances of your getting a first-class MBA from a first-class school are slim.

But they’re even slimmer than you think.   The graduate and professional schools evaluate the grades from different schools on a sliding scale.  They’ll take a C+ from a Harvard English major over an A from an East Podunk business major any day of the week, their assumption being that the work at Harvard is infinitely more difficult than that at East Podunk, and that the standards of the two institutitions are widely divergent.

And the law schools?  If you really want to see a scam, look at all those “pre-law” majors at third and fourth tier schools.  Pre-med is a legitimate major because medical schools have particular requirements for entry.  Pre-law majors are a scam because law schools don’t care what you major in, nor will one course of study be more likely to get you into the law school of your choice than another.  If you want to go to Yalee Law, majoring in Chemistry at Princeton will give you a better chance than majoring in “pre law” at Post. 

By and large, the way higher education has been marketed to the American middle class in the years since World War II amounts to an enormous, deliberate and conscious fraud.

One of the problems with this discussion from beginning to end has been the constant equation of “studying the Humanites” with “going to college” and the consequent confusion of problems with the state of American universities with problems of studying the Humanities.

None of what I’ve said above has anything to do with why you should or shouldn’t study the Humanities.

What it does have to do with is that old refrain “I’m paying all this money and I have to get my money’s worth.”

Trust me, outside of about twenty to thirty institutions, you’re not getting your money’s worth, and there’s nothing practical, in the long term, about all those practical majors. 

If you really want to do something practical about getting and keeping a job, then the sanest course of action would be either to find a way to reform the high schools so that you don’t have to waste time and money learning skills you would have learned without ever going to college, or to find a way to circumvent the schools in some kind of third way credentialing process.

But this system is rigged, and you only think that majoring in “business administration” at SUNY New Paltz is being “practical.”  What it is is, at best, a ticket to a rocky existence in middle management or less, with little in the way of possibilities for advancement.

And when you hit your particular glass ceiling, you’ll find that the guy in the corner office running your life started his educational career as a History major at Yale. 

Tomorrow, the history of Ideas, and why the Renaissance didn’t rediscover the classical Greece, and this guy named Theophrastus.

Oh, and a much better way to study the Humanities than going to college to do it, at least these days.

Written by janeh

June 11th, 2009 at 9:59 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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