Archive for category Education

The Materialist Illusion

We live in a world of matter and energy (though as Einstein demonstrated, the two are really the same).  Matter and energy are at base particles, though the term particle is a bit misleading.   It isn’t like there are minuscule chunks of stuff out there, it’s more like there are ripples in various fields, and those ripples create what we experience as reality.   The current thinking is that the only reason our material world has weight is because of ripples in what is called the Higgs field.  The Large Hadron Collider at CERN is trying to find a Higgs boson (particle) that would prove the existence of this field.

So right at the start the material world isn’t what it seems to be; we’re clearly perceiving it because we’re made of the same stuff and experiencing it with brains that translate how we interact with the ripples in various fields into sensations.

All of this is to foreshadow my real topic: the importance of education.   In discussion on yesterday’s post it was suggested that students forgo college and work hard in order to make money.  I noted that on average college grads earn $1 million more during their life than non-grads, and usually at jobs that are more comfortable.   One person pointed out that students can amass debt during college.   I’ve long thought that unless you get into a really top name school where contacts and connections are abundant, it’s not worth paying a lot to go to a fancy private college.   In fact, at the top schools well qualified applicants will always get substantial scholarships if they have need (and often even if they don’t).  It’s the second and third tier privates where can cause you to amass over $100,000 of debt in four years.

That’s one reason I choose to teach at a public liberal arts school.   The goal is to provide a quality liberal arts education rivaling the expensive private schools at a much lower price.   Kiplinger’s put us in their top 100 colleges in terms of value — you get a good liberal arts education without high debt.   Even out of state tuition is manageable.

That gets harder as state funding gets cut (it now pays about 40% of the costs, so we’re more private than public).  And we lack the resources, pay rates, beautiful grounds and sofas in the hallways with state of the art classroom equipment that nearby privates like Colby, Bowdoin or Bates enjoy.    I don’t get resources and time to do much research, teaching is the focus.    Yet that is gratifying, I’d much rather teach than research.

However, my goal in teaching is only partially to get students to understand how political scientists analyze world affairs and comparative politics.   Only a small number of students will go on to graduate school, a few will work in fields involving foreign affairs, but many will end up with a degree designed to get their foot in the door and be able to advance in fields outside of political science or international relations.   Where once college was an elitist institution where you groomed students to follow in your disciplinary field, now it’s mass education designed to give students the capacity to better understand the world, develop critical skills, learn to read and write more effectively and be prepared for how fast jobs and opportunities shift.

The stated goal is to promote “life long learning.”   Practically that means to help students learn to break out of the cultural hypnosis that so often captures people.   One of those spells is the idea that somehow happiness comes from material prosperity.   That if you can get rich, you’ve succeeded.    Or as Dennis DeYoung put it with Styx in 1977: “Don’t be fooled by the radio, the TV or the magazine; they’ll show you photographs of how your life should be, but they’re just someone else’s fantasy.”

Pressure is put on students by parents, peers and themselves to look at life in starkly materialist terms: how much money will I make, what will I own?   One student back in Minnesota came to me when I was a TA and said her dad didn’t want her to go to Spain for a year because of what it would mean for her earning potential in her prime years (apparently he charted out what missing a year would mean).   I told her that was insane, that what she’d gain from going to Spain would be invaluable for her life, and now she can afford to do it.    She told her dad what I said (though she promoted me to professor in her story) and surprisingly he backed down, “well, if your professor says its worthwhile, then go.”

Now one could argue that one doesn’t need college to become a life long learner.  Indeed, no matter what you think of the politics of Malcolm X, the story of how he educated himself — learning words and history while in prison — is powerful.   If one truly wants to learn, one can.   My experience is that most people don’t.   It’s not that they don’t like learning, but they don’t know how much knowledge and understanding enriches a life.  Even Malcolm probably wouldn’t have taken the time if he hadn’t been in prison, cut away from his life of what had been petty crime to that point.

Part of teaching is to get students to see that.   One time after a unit on the Cambodian genocide a student was so shocked by what happened that he took a job the next summer to teach English in Cambodia.   More often students talk about how what they learned changed how they look at the world, causing them to see both their future and their goals in a different light.   That’s what college should be about —  four years where your main job is to learn about the world and its mysteries from science, literature, how societies function, philosophy, world religions, and diverse cultures and countries.   You can’t do all of that in four years, but if you get students on the right track they’ll want to keep learning as they go on — that’s the goal.

Ultimately if this world is made up of nothing but ripples in fields, life is transient and brief.  Moreover, we don’t know what it is – it takes as much a leap of faith to say that the material stuff is all that is and once dead we’re simply gone as it does to say that something spiritual carries on.   Our lack of knowledge makes both claims equally plausible.   The fact that there is something rather than nothing causes me to think it likely there is something beyond this brief material existence, but who knows?

And if there is something important about living, it can’t just be acquiring material stuff.   We need it, but at some level once we are able to survive that isn’t the sole meaning of existence, nor does it seem to bring growing pleasure.    Someone who gets used to the luxuries of a millionaire’s life style probably enjoys them no more than how a middle class worker enjoys his or her material pleasures.   Once you get most of the hotels playing monopoly the game gets boring.

People choose distractions – television, sports, celebrity gossip, the lifestyles of the rich and famous, religious fervor, ideological fervor, anything to help push aside the emptiness that an unexamined life yields.    Education and exploring the richness of the world’s art, music, literature, science, cultures, etc. opens up avenues that enhance ones’ personal journey and spiritual reflections.   We may not end up with the answers, but the journey becomes exciting and exhilarating on a deeper level.   And isn’t the journey what it’s all about?   After all, the final destination is the same for all of us.

Advertisements

60 Comments

On Nothing Particular

At a recent G20 meeting

Today’s blog entry is about nothing particular, just some snippets and thoughts.   First, I love the above picture making the rounds on facebook.   The North Americans (Canadian Prime Minister Harper and President Obama) ignore or avert their eyes from the woman bending down to get some fallen documents, while Berlusconi and especially Sarkozy unabashedly enjoy the view.

I showed my class this after finishing a power point.   I also added this joke on cultural differences:  The difference between heaven and hell: in heaven the Italians are the cooks, the French are the lovers, the Germans are the mechanics, the Swiss are the administrators and the British are the police. In hell the Italians are the administrators, the French are the mechanics, the British are the cooks, the Swiss are the lovers and the Germans are the police.

Another oft shared facebook graphic.   Unfortunately they don’t cite the source of the stats, but I’ve encountered these kind of numbers before so I am convinced they are accurate:

More Stats...

It occurs to me that what Occupy Wall Street has done is bring the real and undeniable shift of relative wealth from the middle class to the wealthiest Americans and has made it mainstream and well known.   In the past most Americans assumed wealth was more evenly distributed then it is, that class mobility was greater than it really is, and that the wealthy got to where they are by working hard and having good ideas.

It was probably true before the massive de-regulation starting in the 80s; wealth and income equality were greatest in the mid-seventies, and there was a thriving middle class.    De-regulation and lower tax rates are not the cause of the swing — globalization’s dynamic contributed to it as well.   But the public pretty much went on believing things were cool as consumerism raged and people simply stopped saving and went into debt to maintain their lifestyles.

Now people are waking up to what’s happened, and recognize that the ideal of hard work and initiative being the key to success is losing validity.  Even people not necessarily sympathetic to OWS are starting to absorb the data and recognize there is a problem.  We live in interesting times.

Geothermal working well!

In another front, so far our geothermal system is doing well.   We enjoyed AC all summer for the first time (Maine doesn’t need air conditioning, but it’s nice to have!), and it’s been effective and efficient.  The one problem is that it hasn’t done much to heat our water, meaning the boiler still turns on a lot for that.   That’s not a huge expense, but we want to figure out if we can use the hot water generated here to better connect to our domestic hot water supply.   The cost of running this system seems to be about $30 a month, though the coldest summer months have yet to arrive (though we were running dehumidifiers in the basement in the summer so they may have been part of the cost increase).

And it looks like this May I’ll lead a travel course to Germany!

The course will focus on East and West Germany 20 years after unification — how has the country changed, what differences remain — likely with a week based in Munich and a week in East Berlin.   It won’t be a large class like the Italy trips in recent years have been, and I’ll be the only faculty member (rather than the team of four for Italy).   But it’s in my area of specialty, and we’ll get a chance for some day trips to places like the Alps, Ludwig’s castles, Dachau, perhaps Weimar and Buchenwald, Wittenberg where Luther started the reformation, and Leipzig where the protests in the East really took off.   Berlin is always an amazing city to visit.

Finally, kudos to all the Mallett school families (K-3) who attended and participated in the Harvest dinner Wednesday.  I baked some European brown bread and buttery pan rolls, but the variety and quality of the food was unbelievable!  Turkey, potatoes, pasta, salads, deserts…and despite well over 100 people in attendance, we didn’t run out of food!   Being involved in the PTA this year (I’m chair of the fundraising committee) is fun, especially since we have a new school — the old 80 year Mallett closed and the new one opened this fall.

The new Mallett school!

The school is superb — big classrooms, nice common areas, a good library and modern equipment.    It was built beside where the old one stood so construction could be underway even while the kids were still attending the old one.   That made last year a bit messy in terms of drop offs, pick ups, noise and the like.   But it was worth it!  Having kids in third grade and Kindergarten there, it’s fun to be active in that community!

So no particular theme today, just some end of the week odds and ends!

1 Comment

Martin Luther’s Impact

This is another post inspired by my honors first year seminar, “Explorations of the Western Canon.”  So far we’ve engaged the “age of religion” from Augustine to Aquinas, as well as humanism such as Petrarch, Dante, Boccaccio and Erasmus.    The Church reconciled the challenge from Aristotle by making him an authority, and embracing “faith and reason.”   Yet by making the material world now something worthy of consideration, they opened a Pandora’s box.

Nowhere was this more true in Italy.   Thanks to double entry bookkeeping and connections across the continent, the Medici family in Florence became the bankers to Europe, bringing lots of money into an already prosperous Florence, Italy.   With this money came a shift towards realism.   Rediscovering the classics led people to desire the good things – better clothes, homes and food.  Life increasingly became defined by the material rather than the spiritual, humanism gave way to the realism of scholars such as Niccolo Machiavelli (1469 – 1527).

The Church fell into this head first.   After a crisis of a divided papacy in the 1300s, the Church by the 1400s was corrupt, led often by Popes who killed rivals, had illegitimate children, and cared little about the Christian faith.   As corruption grew, disagreements with Christians north in the so-called “Holy Roman Empire” intensified.   The pious in the north saw what was happening in Rome, bristled at efforts to control them, and started to question whether or not devotion to God required devotion to the Church.

By 1517 this was a powderkeg.   Ideas from people like the Dutch humanist Erasmus, who wanted to reform the church (but would oppose breaking from it) could be passed along more easily than ever, thanks to the printing press.   Discontent grew, especially as Rome undertook a major new project: to rebuild St. Peter’s basilica and have earthly splendor to rival it’s claim of spiritual authority.   Should not the center of God’s home on earth demonstrate that glory with the most spectacular structures in the world?

That rebuilding gives us what we see today when we visit the Vatican and St. Peter’s — a grand cathedral, an ornate square, and a sense of majesty that overwhelms both the faithful and non-Catholics.   Yet building this monument to the Church and papal authority was not cheap.   They had to outshine every other cathedral and square in Europe; this had to be the centerpiece of western civilization.   The church had to raise money.

Luckily the printing press helped.  The Pope had often given something called an ‘indulgence’ to people who had done great favors for the church.  It amounted to time off from purgatory, the place where you worked off your sins before being admitted to heaven.   To the average materialist of the era, this meant license to sin a bit — pay the church and you can break God’s laws, at least a little.

Up in the more pious north in the German town of Wittenberg, an Old Testament Professor at the Church University was appalled at the practice, especially when an unscrupulous guy by the name of Tetzel came with a printing press ready to raise money for the Church (and take his own middle man’s share).

This professor, Martin Luther (1483 – 1546), was not your average monk.   Not only was he devout, but he lived in constant terror that he wasn’t really saved.   He feared that his belief was motivated by fear rather than love, and this would lead God to hate him.  He would go to confession sometimes ten or more times a day (no doubt irritating some of his colleagues).   When he heard what Tetzel and the Church were doing he was enraged.  If people think they can buy a right to sin they are likely damning themselves by showing disdain for God.  The Church was leading the faithful to Satan, he believed.

Angered, he wrote a list of 95 complaints against the Church, in Latin, and on October 31, 1517 hung them on the equivalent of the university bulletin board — the church door.   At that time he didn’t plan to lead a revolt, but after some colleagues took his complaints, translated them to German, and then used the printing press to spread them, the powderkeg exploded.   This gave people the rationale to break with the political authority of the church.

It also solved Luther’s crisis of faith.   When the church came back and demanded he recant and threaten excommunication (a threat they made good on), Luther had a revelation.   God said he was saved if he believed; he should trust God’s word.   The Church had made it difficult to see that by its rules, rituals and claim to mediate between man and God.   For Luther, one could have a personal connection to God.   For him this made the Pope the anti-Christ, trying to intervene in his relationship with Christ.

Luther thus stepped up his attacks on the Church and became the leader of a revolt against over a millennium of Roman Catholic authority.   Others such as John Calvin (1509-1564) would develop other alternatives to papal authority as the protestants (those protesting Church authority) rose.   Europe would be enmeshed in war and chaos for the next 130 years as the reformation spread, people sided either against or for the Church, and the Church undertook a major effort to reform itself and end the corruption that helped motivate the revolt.

When the dust settled in 1648 Europe entered a new era.   They created a new political entity, the sovereign state, to replace the old authority structure relying on tradition and the church.   The political power of the church collapsed.  Even in places remaining loyal to the Church, like France, Spain and the Hapsburg empire in Austria, political power was now clearly in the hands of local rulers.    The Church was increasingly relegated to attend to spiritual rather than material issues in a Europe becoming less spiritual as time passed.

Martin Luther no more caused the reformation than the assassination of Franz Ferdinand caused World War I.   His actions ignited a powderkeg that would have gone off sooner or later — dissent and dissatisfaction with Rome had reached a point that the system was doomed.   Luther happened to provide the spark.

This also marked the end of an era.   It was not only the end of Catholic dominance in the West, but also of the marriage of faith and humanism exemplified by Petrarch, Dante and even Erasmus.    While Luther himself distrusted reason and preached a more Augustinian emphasis on faith, the lack of a clear authority opened up paths to question knowledge about the world without risking heresy.   During the wars of reformation Aristotelian scholasticism would give way to Francis Bacon’s scientific method (1608), Galileo would challenge the Church’s sole capacity to interpret scripture (1615 – letter to Grand Duchess Christina), and we would move from the age of faith to the age of reason.   The world would never be the same.

2 Comments

Petrarch and Augustine

My honors course for first year students (HON 101: Explorations of The Western Canon) is emerging as one of the most enjoyable courses I’ve ever taught.   I’m teaching it as an intellectual history course, delving into how the civilization known as “the West” came to be what it is today.   We don’t spend a lot of time on Plato and Aristotle and jump instead to Plotinus, Augustine, and the Church.  In fact in these first weeks of class you’d think we were in a religious setting there is so much talk about God and faith.

That is important — you can’t understand the West without understanding the religion that defined it for over 1000 years.   Although it sounds political incorrect, western civilization is a Christian culture.    This doesn’t mean people are all devout Christians, only that the history of and development of the Christian faith has done more to shape the West than anything else.   Even a radical atheist has cultural views and values that come from Christianity, it’s embedded in our culture.

We’re currently on the fascinating period at the end of the medieval age when Thomas Aquinas brought Aristotelian thought and logic into church theology — faith and reason became the motto of  the Church.    This shifted focus away from the Augustinian view that the material world was essentially worthless.   To Augustine all that mattered were spiritual issues and preparation for the afterlife.    Trying to succeed or progress in this world was meaningless and even dangerous — you could become addicted to ‘things of the flesh’ (wealth, power, material comforts) and lose sight of what brings true happiness.  Augustine’s view defined the early Church and helps explain why  for hundreds of years Europeans did not progress.  Tradition and custom defined the proper way to behave, and material progress was not a goal but in fact something to avoid.

Aquinas discovered Aristotle through the work of Islamic rationalist philosophers, especially Avicenna and Averroes.   But it wasn’t just Aquinas — Aristotle’s works were spreading through Europe among intellectuals, causing a potential challenge to church authority.   Aquinas is important because he provided the framework for the Church to adapt to the change and accept Aristotle’s ideas.   Since taking Aristotle too seriously would mean that church authority could be called into question, the church decided to make Aristotle an authority about material matters.   Aristotelian scholasticism became the academic norm.     Aristotle’s logic would be used to examine and prove facts already known to be true rather than to question authority.

The Italian poet and philosopher Petrarch is often called the ‘father of humanism.’  Living from 1304 to 1374, his writings explored human emotions, driven by his muse, the ever intangible Laura.   Yet he had one foot in the new humanistic world inspired by re-discovering old Roman and Greek literature, and one in the medieval world of Augustinian asceticism.   The class read some of Petrarch’s letters to the Romans like Cicero, Livy, and Seneca, expressing delight and admiration at the beauty of their ideas and literature.  They opened up a new world to Petrarch, one that moved him and filled him with awe.   He couldn’t really communicate with them, but the letters allowed him to transcend the centuries with his imagination.

Yet he also carried with him a copy of Augustine’s confessions.   We read a conversation Petrarch imagined between himself and Augustine as he pondered deep in his soul the allure of humanist love and Augustine’s insistence that only the spiritual mattered.   When Petrarch defends interest in the material side of life — why would we be in a material world if God did not mean for us to partake of it — he imagines this response from Augustine:

“O man, little in yourself, and of little wisdom!  Do you, then, dream that you shall enjoy every pleasure in heaven and earth, and everything will turn out fortunate and prosperous for you always and everywhere?  But that delusion has betrayed thousands of men thousands of times, and has sunk into hell a countless host of souls.  Thinking to have one foot on earth and one in heaven, they could neither stand her below nor mount on high.”

From Augustine comes the message that earthly delights and material goods cannot bring happiness.  Humans delude themselves in pursuit of them, addicted to a desire for more pleasure, more power and more wealth.    People believe that they can “have it all,” succeed at all times, and thus set themselves up for despair and failure.  The deeper one falls into the material world, the more trapped one becomes, addicted to the pleasures, pains and competitions of the day, losing sight of the soul’s only path to real happiness — for Petrarch and Augustine, that would be through the Christian God.

Yet Petrarch cannot simply embrace Augustine’s rejection of earthly matters.   He laments in his letters to the ancient Romans the manner in which people pursue silver and gold rather than the beauty of literature and philosophy.   There is something profound in the human experience, even if one agrees that materialism alone can be dangerous and addictive.

In class we discussed what Augustine and Petrarch might think if they were to visit the 21st century.   We talked about how they might feel sorry of the people of this age, seeing us wholly addicted to material pursuits, suffering the highest rate of depression, anxiety, stress, eating disorders and discontent in history — even as we are the most prosperous.   To them we’d given up the true path to happiness and instead embraced delusion.  Even religious folk tend to treat their faith as a sidelight, their material pursuits dominate their actions.  The competing forces in Petrarch’s soul are still relevant almost 800 years later.

Yet Petrarch also suggests a solution: appreciation of true beauty, such as poetry, literature, art or the highest of human emotions.   There is joy and beautify in friendship, love, companionship and human experience.   That is more real than collecting material possessions or winning a competition.   And while devout faith in a religion may be impossible for many of us (including myself), an openness to the spiritual gives perspective.  Our lives are just a tiny speck in the expanse of time.   Everything we touch, everything we do, all that we take seriously fades.   What seems profoundly important now may be forgotten next week.  If we rely on the material world for our joy or for meaning we will be disappointed because by nature the material world is transitory.

Many of Augustine’s ideas came from Plotinus, whose neo-Platonism he adapted to Christian theology.   Plotinus had a purely intellectual view of spirituality, and we can still use our minds to contemplate deeper meaning and the purpose of existence.   Even if we don’t find answers that satisfy us the way Christianity satisfied Augustine, the intuition and perspective spiritual contemplation provides can make life joyful rather than painful.

It’s easy in the modern “we want it now” world of forward looking progress to think that we can ignore the past.   I hope in this course to help students appreciate that we can better understand ourselves and the nature of our cultural reality by looking back at those who came before, including the great humanist scholar and poet Francesco Petrarca.   Knowledge can bring a richness and joy to life that material possessions can never provide.

1 Comment

American Education

Teaching international relations at a public liberal arts university, I’m constantly surprised by how little most students know about the world outside the US.   There are always a few who had teachers that opened their eyes to the cultural and historical diversity of the world, but few really comprehend much about what goes on outside our borders.

Conversely, there is generally pretty good knowledge about American history and US politics.   Education majors planning to teach high school civics and social science need to take courses in US history and American government; if they take world politics or comparative politics it’s as an elective (and state requirements leave them little room for electives).   Thus the bias against teaching about the world outside the US is shaped in part by how we educate future teachers — and that’s influenced by state requirements, what’s tested for the ‘no child left behind’ program, and political pressures to focus on knowledge about the US.

If I could choose three things I would  like students to understand coming out of high school it would be:

1.   A general understanding of the intellectual history of western civilization.

2.  Comprehension of political geography — how the world is divided, and the wars, colonialism, and agreements that shaped the basic structure of the world today.   This need not be detailed, but at least a framework into which knowledge in college could be plugged.

3.  An understanding of cultural diversity to work against bigotry, knee jerk phobias, and cultural chauvinism.

Recognizing the difficulty in adding to what students already have to know, I’d even argue that this could be taught in a semester course titled something like “Global Studies.”  Each of these proposed ‘units’ could be one or even two courses.  I’m suggesting a broad overview that prepares them for detailed work in college, and awakens an interest to keep learning and growing also among those who don’t go on to higher education.

Unit One:  Who we are.  A brief look at the themes and conflicts in western thought harkening back to Plato and Aristotle.  Students should understand a bit about the history of Christianity as that religion shaped western thought, including the ethics and core values of people who are now atheists or follow other beliefs.  The influence of the reformation, the themes of the enlightenment, and the rise of secularism would follow.   These are complex topics, but in an intellectual history one need not learn all the details of the philosophies and intricate disputes.   Again, at this level students would only need a basic understanding that “who we are” is the result of 2000 years of cultural history.   What seems “natural” and “self-evident” to us comes from deep cultural biases that have shaped the West.   Understanding that “who we are” isn’t “the one people who see reality as it truly is” will make it easier to understand and appreciate other cultural perspectives.

Unit Two:  Political Geography:  This would start in Europe (and could mesh with unit one) and focus on core concepts that would be spread to the rest of the planet.   I’d suggest Napoleon and nationalism, colonialism, the causes of WWI and WWII (avoiding the simplistic ‘blame Hitler the madman’ crap) and the Cold War.  Included would be an emphasis on each continent and its own development.   After this unit students would know “where we are” globally, and have a sense of how and why the world is as it is.

Unit Three: Cultural Perspectives:  Given current events, it is fundamental for students to understand at least the basics of Islamic and Chinese culture.   These are two great cultural civilizations that are not going to go away and will not be defeated by the West.   The fear that some people have, or the ‘enemy image’ the media often promotes are counter productive.  We’re going to have to co-exist and cooperate with people of other cultures.   I’d go into some depth on China and the Islamic world, enough for students to recognize that those cultures developed much like ours, only with some different traditions and core beliefs.   They’d also grapple with cultural relativism — we need to understand other cultures on their own terms, but that doesn’t mean we have to give up value judgments.  How to do that is difficult, especially since we can’t simply assume our superiority.   I think there should be brief considerations of other cultures — Latin America, an overview of the diversity of Africa south of the Islamic world — but there isn’t a need at this level to learn everything.   As long as students understand how to look at different cultures and have a sense of global diversity, they’ll be able to build on that in college.

In terms of standardize tests I’d recommend they cover basics of Islamic and Chinese culture/history, key historical developments of the planet (outside US history) and some of the major concepts of western intellectual history.  It probably would not be difficult to develop a template of core concepts and facts that high school students should know before continuing on to college or joining the workforce.

Right now the country reacts to events and problems with uncertainty, easily swayed by demagogic rhetoric and emotion.   Fear of others, envy, anger, and blame fly easily.   People grasp for simple answers.   It can be expressed as hope for a better future, such as that which elected President Obama, or a desire to return to a simpler past as put forth by the tea party.    But clear thinking is impossible without knowledge.

Some might question whether one high school course or inclusion on a standardized test would make a difference.   I think if done well, expanding peoples’ knowledge about the world will quite often spur people to become interested in learning more on their own — to travel, read about other places, and become life long learners.   Ultimately we can’t create an educated society by simply changing how schools or universities function.  Rather, schools and universities have to awaken a desire by students to want to continue to learn and grow, consistently questioning their beliefs and ideals.    Knowledge is what makes life interesting and enjoyable; if people stop questioning and rethinking/expanding their beliefs, they stagnate and become bitter.     When people keep learning, life becomes a joy.

1 Comment

Intellectual History

For the first time in my life I am teaching a course about the intellectual history of western thought.  It is HON 101, the introductory Honors seminar, originally designed by a now departed philosophy professor.  The way it was taught at the start was to focus primarily on Plato and the Greeks, as philosophers generally consider that to be core knowledge that all educated individuals should have.

However, that person is gone, and there are no full time Philosophy professors able to teach the course.  Moreover, there is no reason why that should be the introduction to the honors program.   I offered to teach it in a different way, as a course in intellectual history.   In it we’ll read bits from Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Augustine, Aquinas, Copernicus, Bacon, Descartes, Locke, Spinoza, Newton, Galileo, Pascal, Grotius, Hobbes, Bayle, Hume, Voltaire, Diderot, Montesquieu, Rousseau, Adam Smith, Vico, Burke, Bentham, Mill, Mazzini, Wallace, Huxley, Chamberlain, Nietzsche, Freud, Heisenberg and Fromm (we’ll actually read a whole book from Fromm — Escape from Freedom).

This may seem a stretch for a professor of Political Science, but for the last 15 years I’ve had a side interest in understanding the development of western thought, realizing that it is impossible to truly understand who we are as a culture without learning about the ‘great conversation’ that has been going on for over 2000 years.    I’ve got a good group of students and the course is off to a great start.

To start the course we look at the foundations of western thought:  Plato, Aristotle and Jesus (or Hebrew thought brought into the Roman Empire via Christianity).   Plato’s idealism (or better, Platonic realism) and Aristotle’s more wordly realism not only set up the core of future philosophical debates but will reflect fundamental directions in western thought via their influence on the Roman Catholic church.   Augustine’s neo-platonism will define early Church teachings, while Aquinas will bring in Aristotle.

After that look at the ancient foundations we begin with a film — The Final Days of Sophie Scholl, which I wrote about as “moral courage.”   I ask students to watch the film and try to identify philosophical and moral dilemmas and how people on each side look at the issue.  I want them to try to understand the Nazi perspective too — it’s easy to just dismiss what we know to be wrong and even evil; trying to understand why people thought that way is important.  They are also to think about what freedom meant.   The  West has created great good with democracy and individual rights; in fact the notion of “individualism’ is a western construct.   But it has also been shown to be capable of great evil.  The holocaust,communism, and colonialism has all come from the West.

Obviously, a one semester course cannot do justice to the nuances of western thought.   But it can give students a kind of scaffolding upon which to plug in their future education.   It’s not just learning facts and ideas, but seeing how they fit in the framework of the cultural conversation that’s defined who we are.   They’ll learn to understand different perspectives and thus become immune to ideological rigidity.    There are a lot of people who waste their lives and minds believing in a “cause” or an “ism,” not realizing they’ve become trapped in a pseudo-religion like Marxism or “Objectivism.”

A lot of people want to find or at least think they have the “right” answer.  Psychologically that can be very important for some people, uncertainty is difficult.   Others bask in the sense that they’ve figured out the truth and enjoy the idea that they are superior to all those who don’t see the truth they think they grasp.   But uncertainty is a fundamental aspect of western thought; certainty only comes with a leap of faith — and even then it’s subjective certainty.   If that leap of faith is wrong, then one is certain but wrong.

Grasping that is the real source of wisdom — it goes back to Socrates, and the claim that “I am the wisest man alive, for I know one thing, and that is that I know nothing.”   What is delightful about the quote is that it also shows the limits of even logic.   The petty logician would say that the quote contains a contradiction — how can he know one thing and yet know nothing?  But that’s the point — even our linguistic constructions are frail and limited.   What appears to be a contradiction in our linguistic constructions shows only their limits, not a true contradiction in reality.  That shows any philosophical system to be a house of cards, built upon language usage which by definition is vague, arbitrary and creates false boundaries and barriers.

Once one realizes that the claim of certainty is the true sign of foolishness and ignorance it becomes possible to understand diverse perspectives and have a true capacity to critically assess and understand how the world can be seen in a myriad of ways, sensitive to context and recognizing the limits of human understanding.    We have only our senses and intuition.  Our senses perceive a small portion of reality; our intuition is subjective.   Beyond that, we have imperfect language to communicate ideas.   We do our best with what we have, but if we don’t understand its limits and the diverse ways it can be used we can be deluded into false certainty and blindness.

Yet there is a sense of satisfaction in accepting uncertainty and letting go of the desire to “be right” and “know for sure.”  It is liberating to be able to survey a multitude of perspectives and understand them, and then craft one’s own “best guess” with the knowledge that there is no answer card.  You bet your life, you make your own choices, and all the dogmatists and ideologues out there are simply deluded fools.  Only someone who knows the limits of their capacity to truly understand reality keeps an open mind and recognizes the joy of learning and growing.   And that’s the goal of a course like this — to inspire students to recognize the joy of life long learning.

2 Comments

Pizza Success

(Another in my series about pizza and my youth)

I'm "saucing" a pizza (spreading the sauce by moving around the pan), the co-worker on the left is running the oven, on the right the roll out machine. This is from 1978.

My first night back at Village Inn Pizza was memorable.  It was a long 5 to close shift, and I quickly became reacquainted with a store that I worked at briefly in April of 1976, nearly two years earlier.   I was told to learn busing and dish washing, being trained by a guy named Mike.   Mike explained the basics, and having been busing and dish-washing at my last job I caught on quickly.

At one point Warren (the manager) asked me to go sweep up the front kitchen as the workers there were too busy.  I ran to the back and grabbed the broom and swept.   “That’s what I like,” Warren said, “did you see that, he ran to get the broom!”   I got a couple snide looks from workers in the kitchen.   Later one confided with me that they were in quiet revolt.  The last manager had been very popular, but the store wasn’t performing well.    The company decided to fire him and Warren came barking orders and demanding people do everything by the book.

My friend Dan (who suggested I apply) pulled me aside.  “Warren’s sharp, these guys are dead wood, don’t get pulled into their games.”   I had no intention of doing so.  When the “old guard” told me to slow down and not be a brown nose, I just shrugged, “he’s the boss, I’m new, come on, I need this job.”     Over the next two weeks I found myself learning more details about how the restaurant operated.   I made pizza dough, learned how to operate the roll out machine (no tossing the dough in the air!), run the ovens, run the cash register, etc.  I caught on quickly, in part because I had done a short stint there earlier.   I kept up my speed, and got in the habit of sweeping and cleaning up before Warren would ask — something I knew he noticed.

I was not making friends with the old guard, but by that time so many of them had quit and so many new folk had been hired that it didn’t matter.   Just two weeks into the job Warren called me into his office.   “Scott,” he said, “you’ve been very impressive, you clean without being told to clean, and in two weeks have learned all the basics of the operation.”

“Thanks,” I said, noting that the comment about cleaning would shock my mom who complained I never did any cleaning around the house (which was, alas, true).

“How would you like to learn how to do the nightly books?”   He asked.   I replied sure.   “The only people who do the books are supervisors, the assistant manager and myself,” he continued.   “In two weeks I want you trained to be a supervisor.   That means you’ll run night shifts — Kevin (the assistant manager) or I usually leave by 7:00 — and sometimes the day shifts on weekends.   You’ll get a raise — I can’t have my supervisors earning less than the other help.   Right now you’re at $2.40, the highest paid non-superviser is at $3.40, so you’ll be bumped to $3.50 an hour.”

At that point I was feeling really good — my pay was going to go up by almost 50%!   “I would like to ask you to come in some nights and watch as I or Kevin do books.   You and Dan can come in together if you want, he’s going to be a Supervisor as well.   I can’t pay you for that, but I think it’ll be worth while.”   I agreed.   “One more thing,” he added.   “This is going to be really difficult for you.   There are still people here who have been here two years or more and they will resent you being promoted ahead of them.   Most will probably quit — that’s what I hope.  I’ve got enough people trained that I don’t need them around.   Others may ignore you or disregard you.   If you have any problems, let me know.”

I said I would, but added that I thought I could handle it.  “Don’t feel you have to prove anything, if anyone’s a jerk come tell me, this isn’t about your pride, I’m the boss, I should know everything. ”   I nodded.   “Oh, and don’t tell anyone about this yet.  I’m going to announce my changes soon.”    I went back out and continued working.    One of the old guard asked me what Warren wanted to talk to me about.   Before I could answer Warren piped up, “It’s none of your business,” he told the guy.   “I gave him a raise.  He’s proven he’s a hard worker.”     I shrugged my shoulders and the guy looked at me and shook his head.    When Warren was out of range he continued “this is just a part time low paying job, you really shouldn’t jump every time he says jump, the guy’s over the top.”   I ignored that comment.

The next night Dan and I came in to watch Warren do books.   Warren looked surprised, but we reminded him it was his idea.   “OK,” he said, “but now everyone knows you’ll be supervisors.”   Within two weeks I ran my first shift.   I positioned the employees where I wanted them, determined when to send people home, made sure the restaurant was clean, and of course worked.   On slow nights I would run the kitchen with one or two people helping with busing and dishwashing.    On busy nights we might have a crew of 12, meaning I’d have to figure out break schedules and focus more on dealing with customers and making sure everything was running smoothly.

The old guard complained, most did quit, but none of them gave me any trouble.   One time I sent one guy to help the dishwasher catch up and he complained that he always worked in the kitchen and that I should send someone else.   “You’re the fastest,” I said, “show Mike” (the guy who trained me my first night was still only busing and dishwashing) “how to speed it up.”   He didn’t protest.   For the first time in my life I had a job I really loved and I was in charge of the store, not just a busboy like at the First Edition.

Leave a comment