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Intentions 4 (The Defense, Part 5)

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So–yesterday was yesterday.  A super early morning.  Lots of stuff I didn’t want to do.  The week, unfolding ahead of me like a minefield.

Okay, yesterday I was a little impatient.  And I apologize for that.  I do get impatient and exasperated sometimes.  I ought to behave myself.

That said, I left literature to the very end, and for a number of reasons.

The first is that I talk about literature on this blog all the time.  A lot of you have heard this over and over again.   In a way I feel like I’m going over old ground.

In another way, though, I’m not going over old ground.  Most of the time, when I talk about the study of literature, I’m talking about why people should be introduced to the academic field. 

But today that’s not what I want to talk about.   Introducing students to the field is important, but when I think about why we should require the study of literature as part of a liberal education right now, today, for people who will not be majors, I’ve got other concerns in mind than my usual ones.

Traditionally, the study of literature was included in a liberal education because literature–we’re talking largely Homer here, and later some Vergil–was considered to be a good way to train students into a moral life.  Figures from literature–Achilles, Clytemnestra, Odysseus–provided good examples and bad, from which students could learn what it meant to behave well, what it meant to behave badly, what was a good life, what was a wasted one.

And this function still works, I think, and would be valuable, especially now, when it sometimes seems my students live in a monoculture where only one way of life and only one set of values is conceivable:  get what’s mine, pile up as much money and stuff as possible, life is about feeling good, having fun, getting and eating as much as you can suck in, and then you die.

For most of my students, the idea that anybody would spent four years of his life pursuing knowledge just because he wanted to know, even if it never made him a dime in real life or got him a job, is not just “stupid,” it’s unthinkable. 

Every once in a while I use as a prompt for essays the story of Jonas Salk giving his polio vaccine formula free to the nation, in spite of the fact that he could have made a ton of money with it, and in spite of the fact that he was not rich,  because he thought it was more important to bring an end to polio epidemics than to make a lot of money.

The responses I get are mixed, but the majority come down to this:  yes, that was a noble thing to do, but it isn’t a choice they would ever make.  Or even think of.  After all, people don’t have a lot of opportunities to get rich, and being poor sucks, and what would you get out of doing something like that anyway? 

What makes me cringe about that kind of thing is what it says about the interior lives of these kids–lives that have been filed down to the worst kind of least common denominator. 

Even the ones who say they believe in God think like this, when you’d expect whatever religion they follow to have given them a different set of priorities. 

We talk sometimes about a generation that thinks nothing is worth dying for.  What I am seeing is a generation that thinks nothing is worth suffering mild discomfort for.

So, yes.  I think we need to introduce students into examples of people with priorities and assumptions and morals other than their own, who make choices other than the ones they themselves would think of to make. 

I don’t have much hope that literature can make anybody moral, but at the very least it can give them examples of something else besides the lives they live.

That is not, however, my chielf reason for thinking that literature should be part of a liberal education. 

That reason is this:  human beings think in narratives.  Or most of them do.  There are surely some people who are natural abstract and conceptual thinkers, but most of us, even the most intelligent of us, think in narratives.  It is how our minds are made to organize information.

This kind of thinking is so natural to us, we don’t even realize we’re doing it when we’re doing it.  And it forms the basis for our identities as individuals and our collective identities as nations and civilizations, shaping everything we do, everything we think, everything we say.

Our identity narratives are so important to us, so central to our ability to live and function, that we do some very odd things when those narratives are threatened.

Let’s take that story about Galileo and the Catholic Church. 

If you look into that story long enough, you’ll find some very odd things.

First is the fact that Galileo didn’t discover that the earth went around the sun, instead of vice versa.  Copernicus had done that many years before. 

The idea was not new.  It wasn’t even particularly controversial. 

Far from opposing the heliocentric universe, Copernicus’s work was sponsored and paid for by a Pope, and the Vatican schools taught it as part of their regular curriculum.  It was also taught in most of the medieval universities, by monks and priests.

At the very moment when Galileo was being escoriated publicly and being forced to recant, that same heliocentric universe was STILL being taught in the Vatican school, and was considered to be beyond question by almost all the scholars in Europe–including the Churchmen.

Which ought to make one ask the obvious question:  what was going on here?  Why was Galileo being asked to “recant” a theory that the Church itself had accepted for decades?

Once you look into it, you find this:  Galileo’s problem was not that he said the earth went around the sun in opposition to scripture, but that he said that the fact that the earth went around the sun proved scripture to be false and worthless.

And he said this right in the middle of the Reformation, when Christendom was being torn apart by reformers whose chief complaint was that the Church, in being such a patron of Renaissance Humanism, had abandoned scripture entirely and therefore could not longer legitmately claim to be the guardian of the deposit of faith.

It really does not take much digging in the history and literature of the period to find out this kind of thing, but the important thing here is this:  the story about Galileo gained currency, spread across Europe, and, in the mostly Protestant north, because first one of the identity narrative of Protestantism and then (more important for us) the founding narrative of the Enlightenment. 

Of both Enlightenments, really.

The story was this:  brave individuals dedicated to searching out and discovering the truth at any cost stood up to an ignorant, authoritarian and anti-science Catholic Church and finally broke its hold on learning.

As the bumper sticker says:  when religion ruled the world, they called it the Dark Ages.

This entire little morality play is wrong on almost every particular and on every front.  The Dark Ages are the period between the fall of Rome and the installation of Charlemagne as Holy Roman Empire on Christmas Day in 800.  The Dark Ages were Dark not because religion ruled them, but because nobody did. When Rome fell, all effective government in Western Europe pretty much disintegrated.  Nobody had the power or the resources to keep order, and the result was predictable.

Once order was restored, the Church not only didn’t fight science, it became the chief patron of it.  We can laugh at the schoolmen now (how many angels can dance on the head of a pin!), but there could have been no Enlightenment without the highly Christianized Middle Ages, which (aside from dealing with angels and pins) also made the first steps to bring chemistry out of alchemy and to study motion and mechanics in a systematic way, never mind what it did for astronomy, before Copernicus and after.

Now, you’ve got to understand–I don’t have a lot of patience with the post-Reformation/Counterreformation Catholic Church, which actually had many of the qualities the Enlightenment accused it of. 

But those qualities were not endemic to the Church at all times and places.  They came into being in the Counterreformation due to a very specific set of circumstances, not the least of which was the fact that it had just lost half its members in an extremely short period of time.

The narrative caught on, however, because it was in fact useful as a foundation for a new identity–first Protestant and scientific, then Deist and scientific, and finally atheist and scientific.  It gave people in those categories a clear picture of the nature of their world and their place in it. 

And it has come down to us today, in barely altered form.  You can read it as “fact’ in most New Atheist books.  We get taught it in sciences classes.

The version of this founding narrative today tends to depict the world as divided between Us (scientific,nonreligious types who rely on reason and evidence) and Them (religious people who rely on “faith” (defined to me completely unproven assertions with no evidence in favor of them) and who are deep in the grip of superstition, and who will kill or maim you if you refuse to accept what they believe.

It’s a picture that has some basis in reality, if you consider, say, the government of the Taliban in pre-9/11 Afghanistan, but has very little relation to reality when applied to any of the major branches of Christianity in the past 200 years.  It even applies less to the period of heresy-hunting than you think it does, and it doesn’t apply to the Spanish Inquisition at all.

The problem, however, is that, since the narrative is largely false, people who rely on it for their sense of identity keep running into walls where they are required to ignore the reason and evidence in order to keep the narrative–and ignore it they do.  A lot of the ignoring is simple denial. Some of it is a matter of picking their spots–laugh at the schoolmen and you don’t have to read what they wrote and acknowledge what they said, keep away from Medieval and Renaissance history and you don’t have to watch the Popes fund all that scholarship and scientific research.

Some of it takes the form of picking ones spots in another way–behaving as if Christianity is entirely encompassed by American folk Protestantism, for instance, and by the fundamentalists and literalists who want to say the earth is 6000 years old.   That saves you from dealing with James Burtchaell or Richard John Neuhaus or any of the dozens of other ferociously well educated–and not at all literalist–Christian intellectuals.

Some people have a much stronger, and odder, response to having their identity narrative challenged.  Consider the professor in, I think, Wisconsin–sorry, I’ll look it up again, I’ve talked about this on the blog before–

Anyway, consider the professor in Wisconsin whose anti-religious message in a class hit the media and made him something of an overnight local celebrity.  He claimed to have death threats without number, and then, one morning, he called the cops, saying he had been forced off the road by two guys in a pick-up truck with religious symbols all over it who, he was sure, were trying to kill him.

Three weeks later, the cops determined that the incident had never happened.  Apparently the man was convinced that something like it should have happened, and when it didn’t, he became highly disturbed and agitated.  What was he, after all, if he wasn’t bravely facing up to murderous Christian neanderthals?  What if the murderous Christian neanderthals didn’t exist?

I saw a less egregious version of this during a discussion on rec.arts.mystery a few years ago, when a number of people declared to me that you couldn’t talk openly about atheism in the Bible Belt without being threatened or killed.

While we were talking about this, Christopher Hitchens started his book tour for God Is Not Great.  He made a point of going right through the Bible Belt–Alabama, Mississippi, you name it–giving public speeches, lectures and signings.  Not only was he not threatened or killed, but he was wined, dined, feted, and made much of everywhere he went.

At that point, the discussion on RAM abruptly stopped. 

And now I’ve written a longer post than I ever have before, and I have to get to class.

So I’ll go, and finish this topic tomorrow.

Because the Enlightenment narrative isn’t the only one that’s getting us into trouble these days.

Written by janeh

September 22nd, 2011 at 9:54 am

Posted in Uncategorized

8 Responses to 'Intentions 4 (The Defense, Part 5)'

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  1. Mique

    22 Sep 11 at 7:25 pm

  2. Thank you for your post, Ms.Haddam. I appreciate your indulgence in providing me with item (2) below.

    1. I’m not convinced that a liberal education is synonomous with doing whatever you please. I’m almost sure that several Classical thinkers have insisted that society has a right, even a duty, to regulate individual behavior. In fact, “I decide what to do with myself – you can’t stop me!” could easily be mistaken for sociopathic personality disorder…

    As far as having “self control in a world of almost infinite choice,” I’m not sure what that means. Is the person without self control under the control of someone else, or is she merely acting randomly? And in either case, isn’t she very well likely to feel that she /is/ in control? What, after all, is the “self,” and how can you tell if it is in control or not?

    If the object of liberal education is the better governance of society (a more sensible goal, I think, in the older sense of the word), it remains a matter of speculation whether this would succeed. My guess is that it would not.

    2. If the purpose of education is intellectual exercise, and we suppose that such is valuable, to what extent is a liberal education superior to – let us say – learning calculus or studying astronomy or biology in depth?

    If the principal object of such exercise is /variety/ (which proposition I do not admit /prima facie/), I say that the traditional liberal education is seriously lacking – in fact it is rather narrow. It has a woeful obsession with antiquity for the sake of mere tradition, and an unconscionable neglect of science, even “soft” sciences like economics. Most Classical authors are not worth reading, except for historical interest. I’ve read some of Plato, Aristotle, and Descartes, among others; these men were not by any means geniuses. Shakespeare (and by Shakespeare I mean Oxford, of course) was a good poet but a terrible hack as a playwright. So Aristotle influenced Western civilization? Then let historians read him; the rest of us can just as well be glad that most of his influence has ended. Reading “great” authors uncritically is certainly not intellectual exercise.

    3. Sorry, but you’re overrating Mr. Bacon. His historical importance was as a publicist for science, not a scientist, and he didn’t understand science very well. Science extends to a great deal more than just “experiment” and the “scientific method” (which he also did not fully understand). If you don’t know how Galileo, Newton, and Laplace influenced modern science and thought, you’ve missed the boat, not just on science but on key aspects of the modern world. And if you think scientific “fact” is merely transient, undercut by each new discovery, it’s /because/ you haven’t understood how science and technology function in the world.

    Moreover, one /cannot/ abdicate responsibility for the knowledge of scientific particulars and still comprehend the modern world. The world of the twenty-first century – or even of the nineteenth – is not a world of “letters” and philosophical generalities; it is a world of scientific and factual specifics. The second law of thermodynamics is NOT optional – not one word set on paper before 1687 is now of equal significance.

    Also: There are no definite boundaries between “science” and “not science.” Real life is much blurrier than that; it would not be controversial to say that chemistry is a “harder” science than psychology, but both exist on a multi-dimensional continuum of forms of knowledge. Seldom in practice are there any absolute distinctions between “A” and “not A”. (Syllogistic logic is one reason I despise Aristotle; in his day, there was /nothing/ in the known material world to which it truly applied, yet he did not refrain from doing so. He could have applied it to mathematics, but he did not have the intelligence for that.)

    Finally: There is one other thing one /absolutely/ necessary to function as a knowing agent in the world. This is statistics, or at least the rudiments thereof. It is not, perhaps, necessary for the layman to know exactly how a standard deviation is calculated, but without an understanding of the collection and interpretation of statistics one is utterly lost in the face of most of the “facts” so readily available today. Given any pool of raw data and an audience randomly divided into two parts, I assure you that I can convince one part that “A” is true and the other part that “A” is false. All of them, no, but a statistically significant majority :D. Lies, damned lies, and statistics – can liberal arts tell you the difference?

    Analogies are often useful heuristic devices, but tend to fail as arguments. One may certainly compare a civilization with a house, but this is more in the realm of metaphor than analogy, and certainly not a basis for argument. Whatever one may arbitrarily choose to call “foundation” or “superstructure”, one has thereby proven nothing of the relationship between them. So the humanities were there first? Venisection was there before antibiotics, too.

    Whatever problems philosophy may be called upon to solve that are intractable to other disciplines, have proven equally intractable to philosophy. In fact, as philosophy has become distinct from science, its scope has dwindled until, by definition, it includes /only/ those questions which cannot be answered. Should prescriptive ethics somehow be placed on a solid footing, it would in the process be subsumed into psychology or some other field, and abandoned as “philosophy” (this has already happened to descriptive ethics). In spite of several thousand years of the most intense scrutiny and debate by philosophers, such questions as, “Should Gramma be put down?” can only be addressed by arbitrary cultural or individual preference.

    Is it possible to understand the modern world without the slightest knowledge of Aristotle? Why, yes, it is. One might lack a full appreciation for how Aristotle’s teachings held humanity back for a thousand years, but I don’t think it’s vital to know about that. Certainly one need not read a single word of Shakespeare or Milton; being able to recognize the occasional reference to “literature” (or obscure historical events) is more a matter of class distinction (or ego). I’d like to see just one assertion by Aristotle (or for that matter Plato or Augustine or Kant) that is not either 1. obvious to any intelligent person 2. inconsequential in the real world 3. a repetition of something already well known to his contemporaries 4. an undefinable, meaningless claim or 5. wrong.

    “I don’t know if I’ve mentioned it, but the middle of my week is a complete, unholy mess.”

    You haven’t, because you’ve been too busy disputing to blog properly. I apologize.


    “What does matter is what particular [ethical] decision your time and place has come to, because that decision will have consequences for your life and everybody else’s.”

    This point is mine, I’m afraid. Why learn about such things when they are nonetheless dictated by society and one’s personal opinion is without weight?

    That humanities/literature/history etc. were studied long before science is not at issue. The point is whether this makes them worth studying now; I contend that a knowledge of pre-scientific (or even post-scientific) philosphy and literature contributes nothing to the knowledge of science. In fact, it is quite unnecessary to know Galileo from a hole in the ground in order to grasp physics.

    Aristotle, you give too much credit. This was a guy who taught that fish were created by autobiogenesis, simply because it was the only explanation he could think of without actually getting his hands muddy in a pond. His “science” was nothing but obscured animism, not amenable to experiment, and what he didn’t know (which was pretty much everything), he simply made up.

    By the way, I would put the start of the Islamic Dark Age at the Turkish conquest. Up until then, Arab civilization at least maintained a high material culture (superior to Europe) and preserved the Greek learning they had inherited (which Europe did not). The Islamic world was not yet turned entirely inward; explorers like Ibn Batuta sailed all over the Indian Ocean and penetrated much of Africa.


    The core of science is not the experimental method, or even observation, but universality and measurement.

    The comparative history of thought is interesting, but I think your point could be stated more clearly, and I will take the liberty of doing so: “Those who cannot remember history are at risk of repeating it, and what they are at risk of repeating is the destruction of rational inquiry.”

    “Everything you do is dependent on the political and social realities of the society you live in… What they do care about–identity, meaningfulness, purpose–probably sounds pretty stupid to you, but that doesn’t matter.”

    Again, this point is mine. What is the use of understanding, if the illiterate mob will rule anyway?


    “Everything hangs together. Nothing is separate.”

    With my apologies to the ghost of Muir, it is entirely possible to know some things without having to first know all other things. Conditional knowledge is still knowledge.

    “Science itself not only was but is first philosophy. At its base are a set of axioms and assumptions that drive everything else.”

    Only in the sense that the definition of “philosophy” has drifted over time. Science has exactly one axiom, which I noted already: Natural law is mathematical and universal. A scientist need know nothing whatever of “epistemology” or “ethics” in order to understand and advance science.

    “…the history of events will allow you to investigate how putting some ideas into practice has worked out over time.”

    The history of events is fascinating, but more depressing than useful.

    “The neuron and brain chemistry guys [et al.] have nothing at all to say about ethics and morality…”

    This is incorrect, so far as descriptive morality is concerned. Some interesting research has been done in this field.

    1. Literature as an instrument of moral instruction is an interesting angle, and not without merit. But I have two reservations:

    a. By college it is probably too late to do any good. Psychologists often claim that the fundamentals of the personality are fixed by age six. There may be a little wiggle room on that but I think, from observation, that it’s basically true. You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear unless you cut it off the piglet.

    b. A great deal of classic literature would seem rather dubious as a moral teaching aid. According to Shakespeare, heroes are bumbling idiots, mostly morally neutral, who typically die a pointless death and usually murder some innocents in the process. Milton makes Satan look like a paragon of inspiration. I ain’t never readed no Chaucer but I done heard he’s purty durn cynical hisself. So were Clemens and Steinbeck and probably most of what you’d see in a literature class. If you want morality, you may have to rely on Russian novels. But the more unambiguous and preachy a work is, the more it sucks, generally.

    2. I don’t see how your description of narrative human thought ties into the teaching or knowledge of literature. Perhaps you could clarify?

    3. I have to take issue with some of your claims concerning Roman Catholic intellectualism.

    a. The heliocentric theory was well known by Galileo’s time, but it was still illegal (in Roman Catholic countries) to represent it as fact, which was partly why it was so popular in Protestant countries. It was VERY controversial, partly because it had become associated with Protestantism.

    b. Copernicus proposed that the Solar system could be understood by a Heliocentric model; he did not prove that the Earth revolved around the Sun nor did he ever explicitly claim that it did, since to do so would have been to put his life at risk. Galileo actually proved that the Ptolemaic model was incorrect. He also discovered mountains on the Moon, which were impossible according to Roman Catholic dogma (which held Celestial bodies to be eternally perfect).

    c. Galileo was in fact charged by the Inquisition for asserting the Copernican Heresy as fact, not for any criticism of Scripture. If you have some source that says otherwise, I’d love to know what that source is.

    d. The Pre-Counter-Reformation Roman Catholic Church encouraged learning, but only under careful control and only up to a certain point. Dogma always trumped “heresy.” It was not even permitted to translate the Bible into the vernacular, lest it fall into irresponsible hands. In the Middle Ages, the writings of Aristotle were treated as received knowledge, scarcely less authoritative than the Bible itself, and this insistence on Aristotelian infallibility (not Biblical Fundamentalism, which came much later) was the chief source of antagonism against progress. It was the slavish adoration of Aristotle (the great Classical philosopher) that held humanity back, not the Bible.

    e. It was after the Counter-Reformation that Galileo was imprisoned (and Bruno burned), so your point about the Counter-Reformation in fact bears against your claims concerning Galileo.

    f. If the Spanish Inquisition wasn’t a bunch of murderous heretic-hunters, I have to wonder what the Autos-de-Fé were all about.

    4. Christopher Hitchens has advantages in dealing with the Bible Belt, such as not having to make a living there and not having to stay in one place for very long – and I’m sure he chose his venues carefully. There are definitely “neanderthals” here* who would gladly murder you for being an atheist. They are the same people who, in a different age, would have murdered you for being a Protestant, or a Papist, or for going about after dark with dark skin. They are few, but they are real.

    *How does Homo Sapiens var Sapiens get away with declaring the mental or moral inferiority of Homo Sapiens var Neanderthalensis? They had bigger brains and were, if anything, less violent. Which is probably why we’re still around and they are not.


    22 Sep 11 at 8:32 pm

  3. Sorry, I think I pasted too much. Please delete the residue, or, if you prefer, keep it as a monument to my error.


    22 Sep 11 at 8:35 pm

  4. Thank you for the link, Mique. I have heard a lot of bad things about British education, but I didn’t know they’d sunk just as low as us…

    There was one thing in the article that I thought was funny:

    “Eventually, the cool gangster lifestyle that these children have pumped into their minds six to seven hours a day from MTV takes over. Their understanding of “success” is not marriage, a job and a couple of kids. It is cars, women and bling.”

    Does this mean that the female students in British schools are all lesbians?


    22 Sep 11 at 9:03 pm

  5. “Again, this point is mine. What is the use of understanding, if the illiterate mob will rule anyway?”

    I think Jane’s whole point is that “the mob” should be made not-illiterate, and preferably not-illiterate in a specific way.


    22 Sep 11 at 11:36 pm

  6. “to what extent is a liberal education superior to – let us say – learning calculus or studying astronomy or biology in depth?”

    I take it you’ve never debated a Creationist. A Creationist is the epitome of someone who knows a lot about a little, and manages to draw the wrong general conclusions.

    And I don’t mean your street corner “illiterate mob” fundagelical creationist, I mean the actual working scientists who give the whole enterprise a thin veneer of respectability, e.g. Michael Behe who is a Ph.D. biochemist and a full professor on the faculty of a major university.

    I would submit that if it’s possible for one to follow a course of study to an advanced degree — and remain a creationist, then there is something seriously lacking in that course of study.


    22 Sep 11 at 11:52 pm

  7. “What does matter is what particular [ethical] decision your time and place has come to, because that decision will have consequences for your life and everybody else’s.”

    This point is mine, I’m afraid. Why learn about such things when they are nonetheless dictated by society and one’s personal opinion is without weight?


    Societies do change, and people change them. If we change them based on the very narrow and deterministic view of humankind and human society we are presented with everywhere today we are going to get a rather different kind of change than we will if we have studied how billions of humans of the same species and abilities as ourselves have solved the same basic human questions.

    To take one that becomes more important to me as I and my older relatives age – when we`re deciding whether the old, disabled and suffering should be cared for by being provided with food and shelter and medical care, or by being put out of their misery like a dog or cat, do we want the opinions of those Jane describes as being unwilling to put up with minor inconveniences much less suffering themselves, or should we look for a more appealing alternative for our old age in the other approaches tried out over the millenia


    23 Sep 11 at 9:32 am

  8. I have been struggling to stay patient, wanting to listen to what you are saying before I leaped into rebuttal mode, Jane, but it’s been difficult.

    What I am still waiting for is for you to say what the point of all this talk about a liberal education is.

    If you are trying to say that the world would be a better place if everyone had a liberal education, then I’m sure we would all have to agree. Unfortunately, that’s like saying the world would be a better place if every child had a loving mother and father, and the world would be a better place if no one used violence against anyone else, and the world would be a better place if people made peace instead of making war. It’s one of those, “it’s never going to happen” things, so what’s the point of trying to persuade us it would be a good thing if it did happen?

    I am hoping that somewhere along here you can explain to us just why you are working so hard to persuade us that a liberal education is a wonderful thing.

    So we can all… what? What’s the point of this whole discussion?

    What is the conclusion you are trying to lead us to?

    That is is a bad thing when students arrive at the college level without even a tiny bit of cultural literacy?

    Apparently that is not the point, because you don’t want to discuss grade school and high school. And you don’t want to discuss teaching methods.

    All you want to discuss is the subject matter and course content of the Liberal Arts degree that you got when you went to Vassar or wherever. Sort of a “my education was better than yours” discussion because I studied xyz iin college.

    So I repeat — when are you going to tell us what the point of all this discussion is?

    Are we going to get that in “The Defense, Part 6”, or are we going to still going to be trying to figure out where you’re going when you’re on “The Defense, Part 79”?


    23 Sep 11 at 12:05 pm

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