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Archive for April, 2010

All The World Over, It’s Easy To See

with 3 comments

Iwas thinking that I probably sounded, yesterday, as if I spent my time reading political magazines for their comments about pron, so I thought I’d redeem myself today.

This month’s Free Inquiry has an article by John Dewey–that is, by Dewey himself, and not just about him–that he published in the 1930s, I think, for a committee of the National Education Association.  It was an odd article to read, because although I’d heard the ideas it promoted before, I think I’d always considered them to be less articulated than in the air.  That’s not making boatloads of sense, but let me see if I can work my way around to it.

The classical Greeks had two very particular definitions of freedom.  The wide one had to do with whether your city state ruled itself or was ruled by outsiders.  Athens was free, then, if it managed its own affairs and did not have its laws handed down to it by a distant emperor. 

The stricter idea of freedom, though, and the one shared by virtually all Athenian philosophers, no matter how much  they differed otherwise, was that of self-possession.  A man was “free” to the extent that he was in control of his passions and able to rule himself with his reason.  That is, a man was free to the extent that his distinctly human nature ruled his animal nature.

If you think about this, it makes a lot of sense in both Plato’s and Aristotle’s ideas about how to construct the perfect city.  Both these men–and most of the medieval philosophers and theologians who came after them–believed that the good society was one that made it possible for men to conquer their passions and therefore to live lives of reason, unchained to the common forms of human destructiveness.

Being Greeks, though, neither Plato nor Aristotle trusted the animal side of human nature for a moment.  Both believed that measures had to be taken to make indulgence in animality illicit. 

Plato actually thought less of the ability of men and women to learn to control themselves than Aristotle did.  That’s why The Republic presents such an extreme form of centralized and totalized control over individual human lives.  As far as Plato could see, everything–music, art, ideas, even food–presented a siren song to vice.  Gluttony, greed and lust hovered like poison clouds above each and every one of us, ready to descend onto our minds and take us prisoner.

I don’t know if Aristotle honestly thought better of human beings than Plato did, or if he was only less willing to go so far to stamp out vice, or if he simply thought it would be counterproductive in the long run.  Whatever it was, although Aristotle’s ideal polity was not totalitarian, it did assume laws against at least some forms of vice, because a polity in which vicious pleasures are easy to come by is one in which large numbers of men and women would engage in them.  Some men are strong enough to fight off any temptation.  Most men are helpless to control themselves when temptation presents itself.

I’m bringing up Plato and Aristotle here because it occurred to me, reading the Dewey essay, that in a sense what he’s doing is simply expanding this idea–that freedom consists not in political freedom, but in freedom from the limiting enslavement of our animal nature.

In fact, he actually goes ahead and says that he wants to argue against the idea of political freedom, because he feels it isn’t really freedom at all–rather, the idea that government should be reigned in and made as close to impotent as possible retard freedom, because it neutralizes the one force that can free us from the suffocating effects of real oppression, oppression by lack of equality of opportunity and by the exingencies of everyday life.

Reading this thing–I checked the FI website, and unfortunately Dewey’s article isnot one of the ones available online–anyway, reading it, I decided that I’d misunderstood this particular argument for most of the time I’ve been contending against it.

The issue is not, as I thought, the Romantic idea of humans without human nature, humans so infinitely malleable that they can be trained to be anything and everything a society wants them to be.

I’m not saying there’s not something of that in here.  There is.  But underlying Dewey’s article is the assumption that human nature may actually be very constant indeed, so constant that equality is not possible to it if it is left to act on its own.

And since Dewey defines “freedom” not politically but existentially–a matter of being able to choose anything, without consequences (because as soon as there are consequences, you can’t be said to be “free” to make the choice)–the best polity is one that makes the most consequence-free choices available to the most people.

There are significant differences between this and the idea of the infinite malleability of human beings.  If anything, Dewey’s idea of the human is closer to Plato’s than to Rousseau’s.  He’s convinced that, left on our own, we’ll do all kinds of things that will be bad for us. 

Unlike Plato, however, or Aristotle, or any of the medieval philosophers and theologians, Dewey doesn’t want to teach men to control their passions (so that they can thereby be free of them) or arrange society in such a way that “bad” passions are hard to satisfy (thereby making it less likely that men will go looking for them).  He wants instead to make as much indulgence in as many passions as possible essentially without consequences, thereby making men free to follow them because unconstrained by their outcomes.

When I start talking like this, I start wondering what the hell I sound like.  Everything feels tied up in knots. 

Dewey was, of course, not really advocating that human beings should do anything at all.  He was no more a fan of theft or rape or murder than Aristotle or Aquinas.  What he’s really talking about is throwing off the discipline of the market, where “market” here means not capitalism as we understand it but the tendency of our fellow human beings to pay us–or not pay us–for what we do.

This is not a kind of freedom that makes much sense to me.  We are all born constrained, and we live lives that are constrained, by the sheer force of circumstance.  I’m a short Greek-American woman.  I cannot and will not develop a talent for the hundred yard dash, at least not one that can ever compete with, say, Jackie Joyner-Kersey.  That’s genetics.  I’m good at other things, too, and I got lucky enough to live in a world that takes women seriously.

On the other hand, if I’d been born me in my mother’s generation, I’m willing to bet anything I’d have gotten where I was going regardless of the disincentives.

If I’d been born in Iran–not.

In other words, freedom looks, to me, to be what Locke says it is–a political matter, a matter of getting government to leave me alone to make my own decisions, and to navigate the social circumstances of the world as best I can.

Dewey, however, finds the need to argue against Locke in order to argue for his own idea of freedom, and what’s more interesting still, he advocates the use of the public school teacher as prophet to new generations of Americans, to wean them away from the old idea of freedom (meaning Locke’s) and on to the new (meaning his own, see above).

The National Education Association was not a union then in the same sense it was now, and it did not have significant influence in the many rural and small town school districts that at the time presented the face of American education.   But it does seem to have had a distinct and unusual philosophy from the first.

And although I don’t see much sense in this definition of freedom–it seems to me like the kind of fantasies children have of being able to fly around like Harry Potter–I do think I understand its appeal. 

At the same time, I wonder how much of a cause of resentment and unhappiness it is.  If you’re born short and Greek instead of tall and nordic because, well, that’s the way life is, that’s one thing.  If life is supposed to be free of the constraints of nature, but then it isn’t–well, that’s soemthing else.

And I’m blithering again.

So I’ll consider going off somewhere and making more sense.

Written by janeh

April 19th, 2010 at 9:28 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Charge of the Ferret Brigade

with 3 comments

Okay–that was sort of bemusing. 

I asked why I keep running into readers who tell me they don’t read first person, or prologues.

I got a couple of rants about publishing companies. 

So let me see if I can do it again.

I used to buy a lot of magazines–actually, I used to subscribe to them, close to a dozen of mostly political stuff, everything from The Nation and Mother Jones to National Review and the Weekly Standard.

I  sort of fell out of the habit of that a few years ago, probably feeling deluged by partisanship as a fashion statement, but I still pick up some of them on the odd occasions when I decide to have coffee at our local Barnes and Noble cafe. 

I was there this past Thursday, at the beginning of a long day of errands I didn’t want to do–personally, I think if those heating elements on electric stoves blow out like light bulbs, the damned stores should carry them instead of sending you out into the middle of nowhere to some parts shop to pick them up–

And what I found waiting for me was the new copy of Reason.  For those of you who don’t know the magazine, it’s not only my favorite one, but the best libertarian publication out there, bar none.

For one thing, it actually is libertarian, and not hysterical nutcase, like the Libertarian Party.

But at any rate, I like the magazine, not least of all because it will frequently publish articles that buck its own cheerleading section, like the one they did a few months ago about a guy who gets some of his health care in the US and some in France, carefully explaining why people might like the idea of a US national system over what they’ve got here.

This issue on Thursday had a small article, largely tongue in cheek, about sex tapes.  Specifically, it was about the celebrity sex tape, and why that is a flourishing industry when actual, deliberate pornography is in a slump.

I didn’t know pornography was in a slump.  I mean, please.  That would be great.  I’ve seen some of it.  What isn’t gross is boring as hell. 

But anyway.

The article contained a piece of information I hadn’t had before.  John Edwards–you know, the US Senator who ran with John Kerry in 2004–made a sex tape with his lover, and that tape is now being held by some court somewhere while everybody screams about it.

My guess is that it’s going to show up on YouTube any minute now.

But here’s my problem–why do people MAKE these sex tapes?

The Reason article was all about why people buy them, and I do sort of get that, although only sort of.   I’ll admit to not having much interest in seeing even those “celebrities” I find attractive–say, Kenny Chesney–naked, never mind naked and engaging in promiscuous fornication.

But it’s less of a puzzle to me why people buy and watch this stuff than it is why people make it. 

I mean, let’s face it.  John Edwards isn’t Kenny Chesney.  He’s not Sean Connery.  Hell, Elton John at his worst at least has more charisma.

And it seems to me that one of the first things I learned about sex was that most people are able to engage in it without embarrassment because they forget, for a moment, that they look more like Woody Allen than Frank Sinatra.

Why would an ordinary person want to make a sex tape?  And millions of them do, along with making pictures of themselves stark naked either just standing there or in various poses.  They do it in spite of the fact that they have to know, by now, that pictures like that are going to surface at the worst possible moment, if texting them doesn’t get them landed on the sex offender registry.

But “celebrity” sex tapes are worse, because these people have to know that there are millions of other people out there who will jump at the chance to show that footage as soon as they can get their hands on it.  And they will get their hands on it.  Even celebrities have to have their computers fixed, as the article noted, and their houses cleaned, and a whole host of other things that bring strangers into the house.  And those strangers will snoop around.  They always do.

But if Paris Hilton and Pamela Anderson Lee seem stupid beyond belief for making these things–what does that make John Edwards? 

For the celebrity-celebrities, there is at least the excuse that they’re usually better looking (and in better shape) than the rest of us, and that they spend all their time being told by compliant media types that they’re just scrumptious to look at.

They’re often not as pretty as they think they are, but they do have something of a cover.  Getting photographed and filmed is what they do with their lives.

But what, in the name of God, did John Edwards expect to see except exactly what he was–a middle-aged, sort of paunchy politico with a face like a constipated ferret?

And what did he expect to happen? 

Surely the man watches the news enough to know that these things ALWAYS surface.  They always surface.  Either that, or I’m the only person left who ISN’T making one. 

I suppose the answer is going to be “ego,” but to me, ego doesn’t make much sense in this particular case.  I’d think that the one thing any politician ought to have above all else is a sense of self-preservation, and a sense of self preservation would have ruled out a sex tape before the discussion about it even got started. 

I don’t know.  Maybe when Edwards sees himself on screen, he doesn’t see the constipated ferret.

But the rest of us do.

Written by janeh

April 18th, 2010 at 8:31 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Me, Myself, and I–With A Prologue

with 6 comments

Okay, I’ve had virtually no sleep, which is doing just what you’d expect it to do to me.  I’m way too old for  this.

But–something came up at the writer’s conference that I haven’t run into in a couple of years, and I still do not know what to make of it.

There are a lot of readers out there who will not read fiction written in the first person.  And I do mean a lot of them, so many that the category romance lines will not accept manuscripts in the first person.  It’s considered to be even more of a turn off for readers than a red headed hero.

No, I don’t get that one, either.

There are also a lot of readers who don’t read prologues.  Either they’ll not bother with a book with a prologue, or they’ll just skip it and start reading after it.

For me, this makes no sense, because not only do all my books have prologues–well, the Gregor series, anyway–but the prologue is where the murder takes place.  Nine times out of ten, all the clues you need to figure out the mystery are in the prologue, too, although I bring them out again and emphasize them later.

But–why would people want to restrict themselves this way?  First person narratiion is hardly an exotic literary device, and it has the virtue of posing absolutely no problem for the kind of people I complain about sometimes, the ones who can’t understand third person multiple viewpoint.  And yes, there’s also first person multiple viewpoint, but that’s not what I’m discussing here.

I’m put off by a lot of things in novels, but none of them is a broad category like first person narration or even books with prologues.  Bad writing bothers me, as does heavy handed lecturing from any side of the ideological spectrum.  Books about sports bore me, unless they’re written by John Logue (or it’s Bill’s Five O’Clock Lighting, but that doesn’t count, really, because I still read everything Bill wrote.  It always sounds like him.)

Even what looks like a dislike of a broad category tends not to be–I don’t like category romance largely because it is almost always badly written, and because it tends to be heavily (and repetitively formulaic), but I don’t like those things in any fiction, and I can read romance if it’s done well and with some originality.  And I’d try.

But–first person?  Really?  Speaking strictly as a writer, first person has its advantages and disadvantages–I always thought the identification with the reader came more easily, but that there wasn’t as much scope to develop other characters.  My first published novel was in first person, and that’s because it’s also much easier to write a novel in first person if you’ve never written a novel before.

But there we go, and I’m too tired to complain about the book I’m reading.

I think I’ll go home, have lunch and take a nap.

Written by janeh

April 16th, 2010 at 10:35 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Fantasy Island

with 7 comments

It’s a little cold this morning.  I’ve got to get all my stuff done here and then head out to a local community college for a writer’s conference, where I’m supposed to be speaking–to classes, mostly–as their first mystery writer, ever.  I know there are people out there who get all huffy about the disdain with which academics greet genre fiction, but what strkes me about academic attitudes to the mystery novel is how thoroughly they’re based on hearsay.

By that I mean that very few academics ever seem to actually read mystery novels, and when they do the mystery novels they read tend to be Golden Age rather than recent.  This is even more interesting when you take into account the fact that most of them are also great fans of Mystery! and the A&E productions.  Those are Golden Age, too, but you’d think they’d at least generate some interest in seeing what’s out there on the shelves recently.

In general, the better the institution, the more likely the academic will be to have read Andrew Vachss, say, or Martha Grimes.  There used to be a guy at Yale who knew the field backwards and forwards and was a great champion of all modern mystery writing, pretty much inclusive.  (And–disclosure–wrote reviews, and gave my books very good ones.)

But the very worst of the academic approach to mystery writing does not come from professors who don’t read the stuff and just look down their noses at it.  It comes from the ones who have taken up the mystery as Art, and identified that Art squarely with Chandler, Hammett, and company, sunk deep in a well of Forties “noir” and endless hardboiled cliches.

When I was younger, I used to think that the reason for this was that the hard boiled school was so repetitive, so precious and so fake, there was no chance that it could ever be confused with real Literature, thereby giving the academics who took it up a chance both to indulge their guilty reading pleasures while posing no challenge to their professional commitments.

Now, I’m not so sure.  I wonder sometimes about people’s fantasies.  I’ve always had a very active fantasy life, a place where I sort of star in my own movie, but my fantasies tend to be practical.  Rather than a form of escape, I fantasize as a way to prepare for something I hope I’ll be able to do in the future.

And, me being me, I often do do it in the future.  It may take me longer to get there than I think it will, but if I really want it, I make it happen.  This may be due to the fact that I’m very unlikely to fantasize about things like having J.K. Rowling-sized best sellers or winning the lottery. 

I tend to think myself into places.  That almost always happens when the place I’m in has become too restrictive to me.  And I suppose that’s where I am now.  My phone is full of songs like “Ain’t Back Yet” and “Some Beach, Somewhere.”  That last one sums it up most of the winter these days.

But I wonder if the academics who are so drawn to Forties noir are the kind of people who fantasize about being somebody they are not, without any intention of becoming what they fantasize being.  It’s hard for me to understand what other fascination is to be had in the Golden Age hard boiled novel.  Hammett is at least a writer.  Chandler isn’t even that, and he’s so self-consciously, self-righteously “serious” he’s hard to take seriously.  Then there’s Ross McDonald, who wrote excellently well, but also just reproduced the same book over and over again, with the names changed to protect the overexposed.

I always thought that the choice of a genre was actually the choice of an audience.  When I was first working, my decision to write mysteries rather than go in for more “literary fiction” had nothing to do with liking to read mysteries more than literary fiction.  In those days, I liked quite a lot of what was coming out of the literary end of the business, and that was certainly the direciton I was encouraged to go in by everybody around me.

What pushed me into a different direction was the realization that I couldn’t write literary fiction without pretty much restricting my audience to people just like me–people who’d grown up upper middle class and gone to “name” colleges and worked in either academia or the arts. 

That wouldn’t have been true in the Thirties or Forties.  Hemingway sold to a wide audience.  Fitzgerald sold to a wider one.  Now literary writers not only don’t sell to wide audiences, they don’t even want to.  Witness Jonathan Franzen and that flap about the Oprah Book Club.

But although I sometimes use the books I read to fantasize about being in different places, I almost never use them to fantasize about being different people.

I don’t think I’m perfect, and even at my age, I think there’s a lot I could improve about myself–but I don’t actually want to be anybody else.  I don’t think I ever have.  Even in childhood, when being me was not a walk in the park, I didn’t want to be somebody else. 

And I don’t know why that is.  Certainly lots of people do want to be somebody other than who they are.  That’s why there are people in costume at science fiction and fantasy conventions and why Hogwarts uniforms and toy wands sell to adults as well as children. 

Maybe I’m just flabbergasted that anybody would want to be a Forties hard boiled detective.  Down these mean streets, yes, and with a bottle of Scotch, too, and a sex life that’s something out of a serial killer’s fantasy–if they sleep together, she’s either the murderer or she’s dead, and in either case the affair ends with a corpse instead of a commitment. 

The chances are good that the people I talk to today, unlike the ones I spoke in front of on Sunday, will never have read a modern mystery in their lives, and their teachers–in this case, there will be students from classes who are there as part of an assignment–will want to know if I’ve ever read Agatha Christie. 

So it ought to be interesting.

Written by janeh

April 14th, 2010 at 6:37 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Performing Arts

with one comment

Every time this blog gets into one of these discussions about what it mean to be educated, somebody is sure to bring up “dance,” and to do it in a way that makes it clear (if only tacitly) that calling dance a major art we should all know about is just plain silly.

And here’s the thing–I mostly agree.

But I don’t agree because I think dance is in and of itself trivial, that is has nothing to add to the Great Conversation.  Maybe it does and maybe it doesn’t.  What I do know is that it hasn’t YET added much to the Great Conversation, and I know why that is.

Dance is about performance.  And performance–until very recently–has been ephemeral.

It’s not just dance that falls into this category, of course.  Acting does also, and so do actual musical performances.  Before the advent of film, those of us not in the audience who saw the performance had no way to judge that performance.  And future generations–the jury for whether something does or does not enter our cultural history–couldn’t judge anything but the audience’s reaction, which would at least be written down.

We’re told that Mrs. Siddons, and Sarah Bernhardt, and Eleonora Duse were all great actresses.  We don’t any of us know what that means.  I’ve always had the sneaking suspicion that we wouldn’t much like what we saw if we could see it. 

We therefore call the composition art, great or otherwise, but not the performance of it, except in the immediacy of the moment.  Bach and Beethoven are still with us, because their compositions were written down and could come down to us.  We’ve heard of various people who over the years performned those compositions well, but we can’t still hear them, and they pass out of the history.

The same is true of drama.  Shakespeare and Sophocles are down on the page.  The performances of the actors who performed them are not.

This is particularly true of dance, because–for whatever reason, over the years–choreography, although written down to some extent, has always been to some extent a matter of rehearsal.   Even if we could all read choreographic notation–and not even all choreographers can do that–we would still miss a great deal of what the choreographer taught his dancers to perform.  A lot of choreography is not down on the page.

So for dance, we have neither the performance itself, nor the schemata for the performance, left for even educated people to read.

But that was then, and this is now.  Now there is film, and recording, and even better, digital copying.

I can know what Itzhak Perelman sounded like when he played–I have a digitially remastered CD of at least one of those performances.  I can know what Clark Gable sounded like when he acted, too. 

With digital compying, performance can be preserved nearly forever.

Which makes me wonder a couple of things.

The first is what effect this is going to have on future performances.  Samuel Johnson wrote the first English dictionary and in the process standardized English spelling, something that changed the course of writing in English forever.  There’s a reason it’s difficult to read Shakespeare but not at all difficult to read Johnson himself, or Boswell, or any of the writers who came afterwards.  They all seem “modern” in a way that somebody like Edmund Spenser–or even John Donne–does not.

Maybe this is what will happen to performance–and especially to acting.  Maybe the wild swings of fashion will start to even out, so that the melodramatic emoting that was characteristic of the Jacobean theater and that wandered into the old silent movies will simply disappear.

Maybe we will begin to develop uniform standards for performance.  I would assume that such standards would differ across the different arts.  That is, there would be a set of standards for acting which would not be the set of standards for dance.

But until very recently, we were nowhere near establishing standards for acting.  Acting was “good” if the people of the time liked it.  Since it disappeared as soon as it was seen, there was nothing much else to  go on.

But the bigger issue for me is this–will the ability to  preserve performance lead to a situation in which we see the history of performance the way we see the history of the up to now more permanent arts?  Will people begin to approach performance the way they now approach, say, Michaelangelo’s David, as a permanent and timeless example of human excellence?

We go to the Winged Victory of Samathrace and the David, to the Mona Lisa and Vermeer’s interiors, to Mozart and Beethoven and Bach, and one of the reason we teach them to students or expose schoolchildren to them is so that we can say:  Look at that.  This is something actual people can do.  They can do something as amazing and unbelievable as that.

I’ve always thought that that was a major part of what should be going on in elementary and secondary schools–introducing children and teenagers to what Arnold would have called “the best that has been thought and said,” and to which I would add painted and composed, because such things represent a way of life almost entirely unknown in most people’s lives.

No, really, making more money and getting more stuff is not the only possible goal in life.  Making more money to get bigger credit card lines to buy more stuff and then end up so far into debt you can’t breathe really isn’t.

In other words, part of the purpose of art in this world is aspirational–it gives us a picture of the best we can be. 

Maybe performance will end up being more like literature–there will be so much of it, that we will find ourselves with an Official Canon, plus Genre Canons, plus obscure items that leave ordinary audiences cold but fire up the guts of the people who hope to be or already are performers themselves. 

The one thing I am sure of is that permanance will change the history of the art–the fact that we have access to prior performances will change both the audiences and the performers themselves. 

Whether this means dance will finally be a major and not a minor art–I just don’t know.

Written by janeh

April 13th, 2010 at 8:05 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Some Asides

with 5 comments

I don’t really have the time to write a real blog entry today.  I’ve got to go running all over creation, and it’s one of those days where it starts cold and ends hot and nothing makes sense.   I did a talk at the public library in Glastonbury yesterday.  The audience was wonderful and the library was spectacular.   I’ve got to do another one on Wednesday, this time at a local community college, so I’m feeling a little rushed.

But I thought I’d try to make clear what I’ve been getting at once and for all, by providing this link


That’s St. John’s College in Aannapolis, Maryland–they have a branch in the Southwest somewhere, too–and although their program isn’t perfect, it’s the right kind of thing.

If you look through the site, you’ll see that they’re not expecting students to memorize long lists of intellectual facts the way students of history were sometimes asked to memorize long list of dates–the program is nothing like that.

And since they restrict themselves to only 100 books over the four years, their list (their de facto canon) is not exhaustive, and it does change at the edges sometimes. 

But this is what education is, and the “courses” we all took in “disciplines” in college was not. 

Now I’m going to go off and berate students, and then run around to banks and gas stations and places like that.

Written by janeh

April 12th, 2010 at 7:53 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Dead Horses

with 6 comments

So, the first thing th is morning, I got up, logged on, and found Robert’s last comment on yesterday’s post–and I had an epiphany.

My real problem here–the point I keep failing to get across (and not just to Robert, although he’s the most articulate about this particular set of objections) is so basic, it never occurred to me that there was an issue on that level.

So let me try to restate the case a little better, and then I’ll see what I get from there.

The object of education is to know this civilization as completely and comprehensively as it is possible to know it.

That’s it.

It’s not to be a better person   It is not to be a better citizen.  It is not to be able to do the math on your tax returns or combine the proper chemicals to blow up your lab.

It’s to know. 


Robert complains that if I want to teach economics the way I teach physics and chemistry, then I have to “get rid of the dross.”

But he’s got it backwards.

I want to teach chemistry and physics the way I teach philosophy.

I want to teach the sciences as HISTORICAL disciplines, to teach the sequence and the history of scientific ideas, just as I want to teach the history of philosophical ideas.

And that especially goes for biology.  Biology taught as an historical discipline would most definitely contain an explanation of various forms of creationism over the centuries, as well as Aristotle’s works on natural history and everything in between. 

I’d be willing to be that at the end of such a sequence of study, you’d have far fewer creationists than you do know–and what’s more important, far fewer people who go to school board meetings going, “well, it’s all a matter of opinion, isn’t it?”

And I would have fewer such people precisely because I didn’t approach the teaching of biology as “this is right, this is wrong, that’s it.”

I’ll say it again–what you want is catechism, or Sunday school, a set of “right” answers that students are then drilled to accept and “wrong” ones they’re drilled to reject. 

But that isn’t education either.

And, in fact, it leaves out all understanding of how people can believe the wrong answers, what the history of the wrong answers was, why they were attractive and to whom.

It doesn’t matter a damn if you’re influenced by books on the “required reading list.”  It DOES matter that other people were–that the US Civil Wat would have been a different thing without Uncle Tom’s Cabin, that the Communist ferment of the Thirties would have been a different thing without hundreds of Workingman’s Clubs reading Les Miserable, that the present day tea party movement would be a different thing if it had not been for both the book and the movie of Gone With The Wind.

The issue is not whether or not narratives are historically accurate, but whether or not they have been socially compelling.  It would be really nice if we all knew the Historical Truth about the Civil War, but you ask then people on the street about the Confederacy and you’ll get Margaret Mitchell almost exclusively. 

Knowledge is indivisible.  And this civilization–more so than any other–is a process, and only by understanding the entire process can we understand it.

That won’t mean that we won’t decide to reject our understanding and run off after a fantasy.  It won’t mean we won’t ditch the obvious–that vaccinations are neither witchcraft nor the cause of autism–in favor of something that makes us feel better.  It won’t mean that we’ll be good people.

It will just mean that we know.

And I think knowing is valuable in and of itself.

In fact, I think it’s the most valuable thing.

And now I have to run off and get my hair cut, because I’m speaking at the public library in Glastonbury tomorrow afternoon.

And about murder mysteries, too.

Written by janeh

April 10th, 2010 at 7:30 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Doomed to Repeat It

with 4 comments

So, a couple of things–first, as an aside, I want to point out that I’ve never suggested that we go about education as an exercise in making people memorize books.  I just want them to have read them.

And second, I don’t think you’re going to do much to change the incentive structure until you can get past that thing where a kid with first class skills in math can go to work for an investment bank and be drawing down six figures the day he walks through the entry level door, and seven by the time he’s forty.

Engineering pays…what?

But that isn’t what this post is about.  So let me get to it.

First, if I had to put a relative value on the subjects you study outside science, I’d put literature first, history second, and the history of ideas third.

I’d put literature first because people are in fact people.  Most of us think in narratives, automatically.  It’s the way we’re built.

Most people will never read Nietzsche or Freud, but they will imbibe and assimilate the ideas those men put into the world by reading narratives that assume them.  And that has plenty of real consequences in the real world–people now serve in the US Congress who would not have if Ayn Rand had never written Atlas Shrugged or Victor Hugo Le Miserables.

They way we understand ourselves as a people and as individuals is given to us almost entirely through narratives, and most of the ideas we have of morality come from narratives, too.  There’s a reason Jesus spoke in parables.  There’s a reason Plato contested, not the ethical ideas of earlier philosophers but the ethical ideas of the Iliad..

Dance doesn’t make the cut for me because it doesn’t seem to me to have had that kind of impact on the way we all live.  Music is somewhere in the middle–especially in the last fifty years, when it has become the vehicle for poetry, while standard poetry has fallen off the map as a literary form.

As for philosophy–you teach poisonous philosophy for the same reason you teach poisoning history, because it did in fact happen, and in happening it did in fact effect the way the world evolved. 

I am watching ideas culled from Nietzsche and the eugenicists being recycled under the guise of “bioethics,” and the reason that came happen is that nobody has read Nietzsche and the eugenicists and nobody knows how those ideas played out in the real world the last time. 

You won’t avoid another holocaust by writing history books that omit any mention of it, and you won’t avoid another holocaust by writing philosophy books where no mention is made of the ideas that led to it.

In fact, what you’ll get is replay after replay, because nobody will know what they should be looking out for, or why some ideas which sound sensible on the surface always seem to end badly.

The study of philosophy isn’t catechism or Sunday school.  It isn’t designed to teach people how to be good people or how to make a good government.  It’s supposed to show how ideas arose and played out over time, how one idea led to another, what ideas underlie what realities in the everyday world. 

We could really use people who knew this stuff.  We could especially use scientists and engineers who knew this stuff, and then we could use a lot of politicians who knew it.  Peter Singer has a chair in bioethics because even people who call themselves educated these days don’t know it. 

The history of this civilization is what it is.  There has been the good and the bad and the ugly.  The history of ideas is a history, and it needs to be taught as a history. 

Forming the moral character of people is the job for churches or ethical institutions.  It is not the point of an education.

Written by janeh

April 9th, 2010 at 11:07 am

Posted in Uncategorized

The Elephant Again

with 2 comments

So, you know, ack.

I refuse to do it.

I’m with Newman on this one–knowledge is not divisible.  If you only know the trunk, or the left foot, or the tail, you don’t know the elephant.

So, do I think “culture” can be taught?

Sure I do.  After all, they taught me mathematics, and I hated it.  I still do.

Mathematics is “culture.”   So is biology.  So is physics.  So is chemistry.  So is philosophy, history, intellectual history, painting, literature, and music.

You either know it all–or at least know enough to see the outlines of the whole–or you can’t really know anything. 

You may not like it, or any of it, but you can be taught to know it. I’m still of the opinion that it isn’t possible to teach people to like things.

And I agree, this is really the outline for what used to be called the “college track” high school program.  It’s largely a secondary school program in England, too.

By the time I got to high school, however, the teaching of this stuff was largely fragmented and disjuointed–there was no attempt to connect, say, Sophocles and Aristotle (if you got Aristotle at all) with Pythagoras and Euclid, or even Aristotle’s “natural philosophy” (the beginning of what would become botany) with his ethics.

And yet all those things are connected.   I would say that Aristotle’s ethics, and his politics, are inexplicable if you don’t know his “natural science,” because the same assumptions and observations of the world underllie both.

As for teaching about other civilizations, of course we should–I just think we need to teach about our own first.

The problem with the people who proclaimed that the West was an evil imperialist hegemon isn’t that the didn’t know about the way other societies behave, but the way they had been taught the history of the West.  England can be seen as an evil imperalist hegemon, or it can be seen as the country that brought the end of slavery and the end of suttee to the world.  The same with Rome and the rule of law.

Civilization follows conquest.  One of the things a thoroughgoing education in the Western tradition would have taught these people is precisely that–and why that happens and what it means.

You can look at the roaring success of Western Civilization over all others so far and blame it on imperialism–or on a superior cultural model that lots of other people want in on.

The choice between those two ways of viewing the spread of Western civilization throughout the world is just that–a choice.  And the people who were condemining the West for imperialism were, in my generation, people who had first been taught otherwise.

But I get back to the same place–the history of ideas would certainly have taught the people you are talking about that their attitudes are unusual, largely restricted to this time and place, and the result of a very particular sequence of ideas and philosophies over time. 

The decision to treat the history of the West as one of relentless imperialist oppressiveness is not made on the basis of anyhistory, either localized or international.  I know plenty of people who know quite a bit about the Muslim role in the slave trade who still blame slavery not just on the West but on the US.

And facts will not change their minds.

The endless silliness about how the West only got hold of “Greek Learning” because the far more tolerant Islamic culture preserved the works of Aristotle and Plato while the Christian West was burning them as heretical persists in spite of the fact that there is virtually no truth in it.

Let’s face it, if West-bashing is what you’re interested in, “Western Europeans lost contact with the works of ancient authors like Plato because they were invaded over and over again by Germanic tribes, and then regained their contact when Greek Christian scholars flooded in to Italy as refugees from a Muslim empire that was perseucting them” doesn’t sound half so impressive.

If there’s a real gap in even the traditional approach to teaching Western Civilization, it’s in the paucity of information available about the Byzantine empire, and Byzantine art, scholarship, and science. 

Most people know that there is something called the Greek Orthodox Church, but they don’t know that there are Greek Catholics, called “Eastern Rite,” who worship like the Orthodox but are “in communion” with the Pope. 

Most people know nothing about the fate of Greek Christian under Islamic rule–and that’s Western history, which in and of itself would go a long way towards dispelling the idea that the West is uniquely committed to “hegemony.”

As for practicalities–I’m all for being practical, I just also think that people should actually know what the choices are before they make them. 

Right now, we’re in a situation where the vast majority of students at colleges and universities around the country have no idea that there is any other way to conceive of a college education except as vocational training leading to a specific job or career.  They are, in that sense, much more ignorant, culturally, than their grandfathers who returned to take advantage of the GI Bill, and who largely explained what they expected to get as the first generation of their families to go to college as “a meaningful philosophy of life.”

As to the overlords of political correctness–they don’t exist at places like the University of Phoenix and the other for-profit places that now enroll an increasing number of college students every year, and they don’t exist at the third- and fourth-tier places that concentrate on getting students through degrees in nursing, teaching, social work and business–and whose English departments consist of nothing but composition and children’s literature courses, and whose philosophy, sociology, and classics departments are non existent.

I’ll go back to my old thing–I wish we would just CALL the two things different things.

Practical training is a good idea–but it’s not a college education.

Written by janeh

April 8th, 2010 at 9:08 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Masscult Midcult Highcult Popcult

with 7 comments

For what it’s worth, I wasn’t ignoring Jem’s questions.  I was just leaving them for this post.

And things being what they are–I’m in a noisy computer lab, and it’s easy to be distracted–I just want to outline my answers at first.

To begin with, there is the “what is culture?” question, and here I’m at a bit of a disadvantage.  I’m not sure where I used the word that made the question arise in the first place, because I use it in several different senses.  Sometimes I use it as a stand-in for “society.”  Sometimes I use it to mean the overarching assumptions of a social world.  Sometimes I use it when I should really use “civilization.”

That said, I’m going to assume that the issue here concerns what the content of the canon should be, or what the content of an education should be.

And if that’s the question, then my basic outline of what it would take to be completely educated would look like this:

            a) the history of event from Greece to the present

            b) the history of ideas from Greece to the present (philosophy in all its guises (political science, ethics,  Aristotle and Aquinas, Freud and Nietzsche and Marx, Adam Smith, Hume, Locke, etc)

            c) the history of art from Greece to the present

             d) mathematics through elementary calculus, and including statistics)

             e) the basics of biology, chemistry and physics, including an understanding of the standards of scientific evidence and some experience with constructing and carrying out empirical experiments.

So that’s what I want,generally. 

How to get other people to value it is a more complicated issue.

I really do not want to impose this on anybody who doesn’t want it.

What bothers me, at the moment, is that most of my students don’t even know it’s there to be wanted.  They aren’t aware that such a thing as a liberal education exists, never mind what it might do for them or what it is supposed to be for.

What’s more, they’re often woefully misinformed about what will, in fact, get them a job after college. Nearly all of them are concentrating on narrowly vocational degrees in a world in which entry level hires for those employment tracks that lead to significant promostions (say, getting to be a CEO someday) are almost all of students who major in NON vocational subjects but at higher-tier universities.  That holds for who gets admitted to the name law and business schools, too.

So what I want to do is just to get it out there, to make people aware of what exists.

Then, if they want to reject it, at least they’ll actually be rejecting it.

Right now, they’re not rejecting so much as they’re oblivious.

And, I’ll admit, the university departments aren’t helping. 

Although these days, the problem isn’t the politicization of them–most of them aren’t particularly–as it is the fact that the departments themselves have lost sight of what a liberal education is and what it is for.

Tomorrow, there will be more quiet and more ability to concentrate.

Written by janeh

April 7th, 2010 at 10:23 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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