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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Social Welfare Programs Should Liberate

Modern social welfare programs began under Bismarck’s conservative German government as a means of undercutting the growing socialist movement.  If workers saw that the state would help alleviate poverty and provide needed services, then the workers would not support Marxism.   Moreover, conservatives tend to view the state as a “organic entity,” a collective bound together as a community.   That means that it is in the interest of the state to make sure that people aren’t suffering or being exploited.

Other reasons for social welfare programs include ending poverty and suffering as an end in and of itself.  This was behind Johnson’s “Great Society” programs, most of which were actually implemented in the Nixon and Ford administrations.   In Europe, the left and right reached the great compromise, whereby the left would accept market capitalism in exchange for the right accepting that the state guarantee health care, pensions and a safety net.   This led to unprecedented peace and prosperity for Europe, settling past ideological battles between left and right.

However, as demographic change makes most of these systems unviable in the long run, and high debt forces reconsideration of how governments spend money, it is time to rethink the purpose behind social welfare spending.

Bismarck’s goal of stability remains.  Societies that see vast gaps between the rich and poor tends towards either authoritarianism (as the rich want to protect their share) or revolt (as the poor get angry about class difference).  The “great compromise” was a brilliant solution; putting that at risk would threaten the core stability of western civilization.

Goals of ending poverty or equalizing wealth are suspect, in part because they are too vaguely defined.   You could end poverty by simply transfering wealth to the poor, but what good does that actually do for the people themselves?   It gives them more money, and may help them feed their families, but the goal is at too high a level of analysis.   We should focus on social welfare programs for the sake of the people who are on them.

In the industrialized world people are generally responsible for their success in life.   It’s a lesson I try to teach my children and my students: don’t blame others for the world you create for yourself, take responsibility.   You can’t choose your circumstances, but you can take action and make choices to change them.   Whining about injustice only increases the total whine volume.   Claim your life!   It’s yours to make, if you’re in college you have every opportunity to succeed, take control!   That is a liberating experience, it’s freeing oneself from being confined by the shackles of low expectations and low self-esteem.

But what happens when we just give money to people?   I’m reminded of the scene in Syriana where the oil tycoon talks about the money he’s made and how it’ll “probably ruin my children.”    When you look at the children of the very wealthy, they have as many if not more problems than others, despite the wealth.  When young athletes or film stars suddenly get large amounts of money, it often creates more problems for them than solutions.   Some can handle it, many can’t.  The reason: money itself does not help a person understand to how to live life.

Many poor are stuck in a situation where they do not believe they can take control of their lives, they don’t see opportunities, they haven’t had the chance to handle the risks through which we build self-esteem.    If you just give them money, there is a real danger they’ll become addicts.  Not drug addicts, but rather addicted to ‘free money.’   That will feed into a sense of victimization and entitlement.   Rather than taking control of their lives, they’ll lose control of their lives and teach those lessons to their children who will start out psychologically unprepared for the demands of the real world.

So I would restate the goal of social welfare programs as being one of liberation.   I do not mean this in a Marxian sense of ending exploitation.   Rather, a person should be able to develop the confidence to grab opportunities and take control of his or her life.    It should liberate a person to rise out of their circumstances, to provide positive role models to their children and community, and ultimately create a sustainable growing economy in communities once suffering economic stagnation.

Unlike some on the right, who take the approach that “if you cut the money they’ll be forced to pull themselves up by their bootstraps,” I do not believe just ending social welfare programs can work, nor do I think private donations would adequately do the trick.   So I reject the dichotomy that says “either you give away money to the poor or you don’t.”   Rather, we have to figure out ways to design a system that creates opportunities, works with communities, and helps people empower themselves.

Education must be part of this (and I think access to affordable health care is necessary too).   People don’t automatically have confidence and self-esteem.  Self-esteem cannot be gained just by being praised — it comes from learning one has the capacity to overcome obstacles.    In fact, I’d say you can’t really gain self-esteem unless you risk failure and even have to overcome failure.    In that sense, education has to be combined with opportunity.

But this needs to be more than job training or even workfare.  To really function and become sustainable, opportunity has to connect with community.    In that sense one of the most important roles is that of a community organizer, someone who can come in and bring a community together around opportunities for growth.    Receiving any social welfare help should be linked to participation in some kind of community venture.

As communities arise, they will provide the opportunities and feedback for people to build confidence, have higher self- and other-expectations, and develop real self-esteem.   They will take pride in what they build, and ultimately that will lead to them taking control of their own individual lives and recognizing that they have the power to make choices that will make it much less likely they’ll need assistance.   In a recession no one is immune from some hard times, but ultimately the key not only to cutting social welfare spending but also regaining economic momentum and growth is to have people in society making good choices and wanting to be productive.

Community and opportunity based social welfare programs could succeed where bureaucratic programs fail.   A community organizer in the field working with people is far more likely to help than a welfare caseworker sitting in an office asking questions and making sure the proper forms are filled out.     And given the economic and budgetary crunch, now is the time to reassess our approach.

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Is War Natural?

My second on line course is “War and Peace,” looking at theories of why people go to war, and how peace can be built.  I am by principle opposed to military action and war in most cases.   The costs of war in human lives, social stability, and the psychological state of both soldiers and the populations involved is immense.   Most of the time wars could be avoided through better communication, diplomacy and clear signals of intent.  I’m not foolish enough to think humanity is at a point where war can simply be abolished — but I also don’t think war is natural.

My eight year old son is right now fascinated by war.   He draws detailed pictures of various weapons and scenes, including a soldier with some kind of missile launcher destroying the Eiffel tower saying “USA Rocks!”   While drawing it he asked me what the German word for their army was, so I told him “Bundeswehr.”  He wrote that in front of guys defending the Eiffel tower.   (The Eurocorps, perhaps?)   He later had the same kind of seen with Big Ben, with the clock falling on the defending forces below.

I have friends who would be shocked if their children drew those kinds of pictures, but he’s eight — and he does know the difference between imagination and reality.   One time when Ryan showed me a picture of some dead soldiers I said, “gee, I bet their dads and moms aren’t happy.”   He stopped a second and said, “Dad, it’s just a picture, it’s imaginary, not real.”  Anyway, I’m not going to stifle his creativity because of adult ideas of political correctness.   And it was nice that both the Eiffel Tower and Big Ben were in Cars 2 that we saw this weekend.

So, besides the fact that I’m not an overly protective or controlling father, what does it mean that my son gets enamored with the idea of war and weapons?    I think culturally it shows how we learn to see war, weaponry and conflict.  It is cool, exciting, and one can have victory!   The bad guys are defeated.    Death is sanitary.  “It’s imaginary, not real.”  The ideals of honor, heroism and strength become part of who we are.   It infiltrates video games, television shows and movies.

First, an aside to those who think I should try to protect my son from that culture:  I understand the concern, but disagree with trying to shield children too much.   Parents who think they can control the cultural inputs and produce a child that has their own exact values are naive.   The more a child is protected and forced to follow paths that parents think are politically/socially/religiously correct, the more likely it is that a child will rebel or be unable to cope with the cultural forces that he or she will inevitably face.   Better to let the child learn the culture, but reinforce lessons along the way.  For me that means talking a bit about the drawings — acknowledging how cool it looks, how “awesome” the missile launcher is, and how gross the pool of red blood looks.   But then at other times talking about the difference between real and imaginary.   I actually have surprisingly “grown up” conversations with Ryan about war, religion, and life.   In order not to be hypnotized by the culture, one has to be able to navigate it.

Yet the danger is that the glorification of war will desensitize children as they grow, and war will be seen as a big video game, covered by CNN, abstracted to the point that the spectators have no clue of what the participants in war endure —  either the civilians caught in the cross fire “over there,” or the soldiers who have to deal with the reality of death and destruction around them.   In such a case, the cultural messages of war as honorable, cool, a way of showing strength, and an abstract struggle of good vs. evil will overwhelm that part of war we don’t see — the grotesque, sickening, revolting and tragically sad destruction of families, lives and even cultures.

Is war natural?   I think not.  Conflict is natural.  Self-defense is natural.   Anger is natural.  Aggression is natural.   Sometimes these things turn into actual fights, but rarely does a participant die.

War is different.   War is a social process, and in fact a social construct.   A collective group (tribe, state, nation) chooses war against another group as an abstraction.    Consider: the most poignant and successful anti-war book ever was All Quiet on the Western Front.   It had no overt anti-war message, it simply described WWI as it was for German soldiers on the front.   War was not glorious or heroic, but mundane, ugly and sickening.   The British hated the book because it portrayed Germans as being as just as human and likable as the British.   War requires you imagine the other as having evil traits, they are different from you — they don’t value life, they hate freedom.   In order to justify killing them, we latch all sorts of absurdities onto the collective “other.”   The Nazis and German militarists hated the book because it portrayed the soldiers as being normal, flawed and confused often afraid humans — not the noble heroes the military was supposed to be.  War requires myth to be embraced; the reality of war revolts the senses.

War as we might define it (two collective groups fighting) probably began about the time people started farming, and created the notion of private property.   The idea of private property is non-existent in many hunter-gather cultures — but once you farm you have to protect the land in order to get the benefit of your efforts.   That means you protect the property.

Still, the formation of collective units is natural.   Humans are social creatures, and throughout most of our history we have defined ourselves more as part of a group than as distinct individuals.  Individualism is a western construct — one that is more myth than reality.    So in that sense protection of and competition for resources by groups can be seen as a natural result of human progress in a world of scarcity.

So in regions where people truly lack, and there is a stiff competition for scarce resources, war may indeed be a natural manifestation of the human struggle to survive.   Yet in places where people have enough to survive, that doesn’t cut it.   In cases where war is about religion, ethnicity, ideology, conquest for the sake of glory, expansion, social darwinism or even to ‘spread democracy,’ war is human construct made possible by how we abstract it into something most people define and understand as something far different than its reality entails.   Calling it ‘natural’ and ‘omnipresent in human history’ rationalizes that kind of approach.    How can one condemn the inevitable?

But war is rare.   Most states settle all their disputes peacefully; only 2% of the population actually fights in a war.   Wars make the news because they are an anomaly from most of what’s happening in the world.   Moreover, calling it a social construct does not mean we can easily choose to make it go away.   All traditions, cultures, and rituals are social constructs.   Yet once constructed people tend to reproduce them, and social reality becomes resilient.   It’s difficult to, say, end slavery, racism or gain equal rights for women.   Those changes required changing culturally shared beliefs, and people usually hold on to their beliefs, change thus can take generations.

So most war may not be natural, but that doesn’t make it easy to overcome or something we don’t have to try to understand, learn about, deal with and at times experience.    My hope in this class is that by learning about war and peace, students are able to see international conflict in a realistic light.    That means both seeing through the myths of glory, honor and heroism, and also understanding that naive chants of “no more war” are unrealistic.     War may be necessary at times, but if one supports any given war, one should do so understanding what war really is, with a cold sober appreciation of the immense costs and uncertainties it creates.

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A New Generation

On Wednesday evening President Obama addressed the country to inform us that the war in Afghanistan was winding down and would be ended ‘responsibly.’   10,000 troops will return this year, and another 23,000 by the middle of 2012.  He neglected to say that over 65,000 would still be there, promising only to continue the draw down as security responsibility is handed over to the Afghans, with a goal of completing the process by 2014.   A NATO/Afghan conference next May will work through the details.

Thursday morning in Summer Experience the class watched a shaky Youtube video of Obama’s speech, and critiqued it having read a number of pieces about war, and an article by Howard Zinn about our double standard when it comes to violence.  Students were uniformly critical of the wars, though some said they understood why we went into Afghanistan in 2001 before Iraq pushed us off course.    It’s interesting how in 2001-04 students showed a strong burst of patriotism and support for even the Iraq war, which by 2006 had shifted to anger about the on going wars, and since 2009 or so has become a kind of an apathetic cynicism.   One fascinating aspect of teaching is seeing how attitudes can quickly change with new groups of college students.

Another piece we read was about Kent State.   Most students don’t know what happened in May 4, 1970 when the Ohio National Guard killed four students and wounded others when confronting an angry student protest.   To give background I played some of President Nixon’s speech announcing the invasion of Cambodia, which he gave on April 30, 1970.   That speech sparked the protests that led to the shootings.   What students noticed (and I hadn’t really expected) was the similarity between some of what each President said.   Nixon was also announcing a draw down of forces from Vietnam, over 100,000.   His explanation (have the Vietnamese take over responsibility for their own security – Vietnamization) and rhetoric about the US role was often similar to what Obama said.   To be sure, Obama didn’t announce the invasion of another country, though one student noticed the parallel between the importance of Cambodia in that war, and Pakistan in the current one.

They were shocked about the protests and especially the fact live ammo would be used on students.   One student compared that to China at Tienanmen Square, though clearly the scope was far less.   They were surprised that many people even supported the shootings at the time, and said that this is another example of groups of people not understanding each other and thus rationalizing conflict and violence.

We ended up discussing the conditions my generation is handing off to them:   a number of on going wars that need to be ended (they’ve cost over $1 trillion so far), government debt that started growing dramatically in the early eighties,  private debt and credit card debt that has grown even faster (the public has mirrored the government in that regard),  the current account deficit that has made the dollar and the US very vulnerable to outside shocks, and the growing gap between the rich and poor.   I showed the charts that showed that the wealthy have done very well during the last thirty years, while the middle class and poor have actually lost ground.   Finally, we talked about energy and touched yesterday on the environment.

Most of the problems, especially the economic ones, are rooted in choices made in the early 80s after the last recession when tax rates were cut and spending/debt increased.   Thirty years of imbalances, and these 18 year olds now have to face the fact that unless this gets fixed, their future will not be as comfortable as the lifestyles enjoyed by the previous generation.  They expressed disdain for the ideological bickering between the political parties and said that if people listened to each other (the point of a Walter Lippmann piece they read for today), we’d realize that the problems were real and we have to solve them.

It also seems that in a world of constant communication and technical sophistication, the allure of ideological thinking is fading.   The reality of the problems we face and the messes such thinking has caused in the past presents them with a challenge: their future depends on shifting our political and economic thinking in a profound manner.    We discussed the naive thinking of economic ideologues — those on the left who think government can plan and run an economy without markets, and those libertarians who think markets are magic and can operate without regulation and the state.   A little common sense can cure such ideological blindness, and for all the faults people find with the ‘facebook generation,’ they seem to have little patience for putting theory ahead of reality.

I’ve taught summer experience for 12 years now, starting in 2000 in the midst of the dot.com crash.   In the late 90s many students had bragged about making money through day trading and some thought they might never have to work since their investments could just keep proliferating.   In the years since as technology progressed and the country has gone through extended wars and now a deep recession, I find myself more impressed than ever by the young people heading into college.   There seems to be more pragmatism behind youthful idealism (I can’t imagine them burning down ROTC buildings and the like, regardless of how opposed they might be to a war), a willingness to consider and try to understand a variety of perspectives (I credit both the internet and globalization with this) and even improved knowledge about world events.

I hope my faith in the new generation is well placed, since I am losing faith in mine to actually start listening to each other and working for compromise and a pragmatic solution of the serious problems we face.   If ideological screaming by the left and right continues, with elections zig zagging between parties as the public becomes frustrated by the inability to collaborate on creative solutions, we’ll need young people to come forth with new solutions.   And, given their command of technology and the information revolution, they just might be able to do it — it’s not just Egypt that needs the youth to rise up and demand change!

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Giving in to Voice Recognition

For the last 38 years I’ve kept a journal.   It started back when I was thirteen, paused when I hit 15, and started “for good” at age 16.   Up through 1985 it was pen and paper, then I started to use word processing.

From 1985 to 1989 I used a word processing program called “Paper Clip” with my Commodore 64, which I had hooked up to both a printer and an old black and white TV as a monitor.  I still have that old computer, disk drive and “Paper Clip” program.   I believe I have the old floppy disks (the 5+ inch variety), but I have no clue if it would be possible to transfer those files to Word.

Last summer I started the task of typing up my old journals.   I am a fast typist.  In 7th grade I took typing and had homeroom in the typing room so I practiced a lot.   Back at Patrick Henry Junior High in Sioux Falls in 1973 I was one of only three guys in my typing class.   The reason the girls outnumbered us 10 to 1 was because typing just wasn’t a skill boys were expected to learn.   Most guys took more shop courses (wood working, metals, drafting, etc.) while the girls took things like typing.   You see, guys would likely end up in an office with a dictating machine, while the girls would be the secretaries who would have to type up the work.   Why would a boy want to develop typing skills?   A male secretary would be, well, weird.

I’d love to say I enlightened enough to oppose sexual discrimination back in the 8th grade, but the truth is I loved to write even back then.    I wanted to type.   I was going to be a journalist, preferably a sports writer.  My hero was Sid Hartman, an insider for the Minneapolis Tribune (now the StarTribune) who wrote daily columns about the goings on inside the Twins, Vikings, Gophers and North Stars (the hockey team of that era) club houses.   I could imagine myself following sports for a living.   So I learned to type, and I was one of the fastest in the class — my typing teacher was thrilled to have a boy learn to type and be so good!   In junior high, otherwise lost years for me academically, typing was my best subject.

I remember writing about the Ali-Foreman fight, various football games, and handing my “column” (I’d get to school early so I could write) to friends and have them comment and often argue about my effusive praise of Fran Tarkenton or prediction that Bert Blyleven would be a superstar.    I learned and wrote on an Underwood manual typewriter, and still remember those drills to strengthen the little fingers, slapping the carriage return bar, and making sure that I didn’t type past the little mark representing the one inch bottom margin.

By college I had my own Royal Electric typewriter (I still have it, though I have no idea if I could get a ribbon for it), and for long papers I would go into my dad’s office to use his secretary’s IBM selectric.  That was a sweet machine, and I fantasized about owning a Selectric.  It had a backspace button that automatically whited out a mistake — and if you backspaced ten or so times, it would remember which letters to white out.   It was sleek and easy to type on.   I hit 100 WPM with no errors at one point.

Of course, I never bought a Selectric.  Shortly after college the technology revolution brought the PC age, and at age 25 I got my Commodore 64.   That’s also when I shifted to typing my journals.

Last summer I started retyping my old journals, getting 1973 to 1975 complete.   But as I look at the stacks of paper representing journals between 1975 and 1989 and consider the aches and pains of constant typing, I realize that I lack the time to quickly type them all up.   I’m also not sure my hands and wrists could take it.   So today I went on line and ordered voice recognition software.

The typist in me has been resisting that, the same way I resist texting.   I don’t have that many skills in life, but typing is one of them!   To be sure, most of my writing will still be done via keyboard.    I think through my fingers.   To me typing is the process of writing, I don’t do well with a pen and paper, or by talking it.   I could never create blog entries with voice recognition software, my fingers on the keyboard are integral to the creative process.  But copying already written material?  Yeah, I can see just reading it aloud.

I also have “dream journals” to copy.   These were made from 1986 to 1990 and contain thousands of dreams.   I would become what I called “dream aware” (I’ve since learned the official term is lucid dreaming) and then do experiments, waking up to jot down the ideas I’d type up (on my Commodore 64) the next morning.

I’m not sure how well voice recognition will work, if I find that I’ll use it more often than expected, or end up hating it — I’ll blog the result when that happens.  And who knows — maybe I’ll balance giving in to this new technology with a purchase down the line of an old Underwood manual typewriter.   I’m sure my fingers (especially the pinkies) have gotten lazy and soft being used to these sensitive PC keyboards.   My fingers could use a good workout!

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When in Rome…

Some of the Pompei group today, sporting sun burns

Today most of the students headed to Pompei, where Sarah holds a seminar on the art and archeology there, a highlight of the trip for many students.   I had to stay in Rome to try to arrange an inexpensive bus trip to the airport on Monday (I succeeded).   Steve remained behind too, as Luann and Sarah led the group to Pompei.  I did go last time we went, and did a short blog entry on that in 2009.

Steve and I took a walk through Rome to plan an assessment of this trip, involving both current students and alumni from the five previous trips abroad we led.    We also scouted around for a place for the second student seminar (perhaps Circo Massimo) and plotted the final two days of the course, going over the lessons learned so far.   At about 3:00 we were very, very hot and decided to take a two hour break and meet at 5:30 to continue.

From the window of the bread/pastry shop. Expensive but excellent!

We had planned a nice long calorie burning walk, but once we reached an area that appeared to be the university section we got seduced into having pastries and Cafe Macchiato at this wonderful bakery.   They had a wide variety of breads and pastries  and we enjoyed a delicious treat.

Then, not more than 20 steps away, we found a pizzeria.   We ordered pizza and wine and chatted two hours.   It was productive — we now have an assessment plan for this course (not just this one but the series of travel courses) and need to get IRB approval.   We really believe we’re accomplishing something very difficult here, bringing together a truly interdisciplinary experience with whole life lessons that we hope students will take into their futures.   It’s exciting, invigorating, and far more than just travel in Italy.   Our next goal is to demonstrate that by assessing the experience.

Pizzeria in Rome

So after a leisurely meal on a warm but pleasant Roman evening, we got up to head towards the station to meet the Pompei folk on their return.   En route we had another pastry and cafe.   So much for the calorie burning walk!  Still, we’re in Rome, and tonight we enjoyed the evening in a Roman manner with food and drink.

The train from Napoli was on time, and the students on board.  They were sunburned, enthusiastic and very hungry.   They’d taken the “slow” train for 21 Euro round trip (2.5 hours from Napoli to Roma — the high speed train does it in half the time — but 90 Euros round trip), and had been rushing to catch the train.

Two more full days in Rome then we head home.

Back from Pompei!

What a day!

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The Empire Falls, the Church Rises

Students from the "fall of Rome rise of the church" seminar in front of San Pietro

Today we offered a diverse set of seminars and excursions as students choose what they wanted to learn about with more depth.   I held an evening seminar near the Vatican with students who had just visited the Vatican museum and Sistine Chapel.

Earlier a large group of students went with me to see the Colosseo, which now includes a museum covering that part of Rome before it became the spot for  the Colosseum.   Being in the center of Rome it had palaces and even a human made lake.   Only after the fire of 64 AD destroyed the region could a grand Colosseum be built.   This a definite a case of turning a crisis into an opportunity.

In awe of history!

Originally the Colosseum held brutal sporting events, including the gladiators, hunts, executions and a variety of violent entertainment.   When the grounds got too bloody, a layer of sand would be added.   55,000 spectators could come, most in shade provided by awning over the top (something we would have liked to have had today).

Many know that Christians were martyred here, but the relationship between early Christians and the Church is complex.   Despite some bouts of persecution, Christianity was usually tolerated even while banned.   Women were more likely than men to convert to Christianity, in part because Roman customs made women clear second class citizens.   Starting slowly, Christianity grew as the empire headed for decay.   Ultimately the empire fell as the church rose.

We found a secluded spot by the Tiber river near Castel Sant'Angelo for seminar

The roots of the rise of the Church go all the way back to how Paul settled a dispute early on.   Did one have to convert to Judaism to become Christian?   If so one would have to follow Jewish laws, men would have to get circumsized (that might dissuade some would be converts), and the religion would have the identity as being a sect within Judaism.   Paul, looking back to the story of Abraham, said “no,” meaning that anyone could convert without having to worry about Jewish law.   This turned Jews off to what had been a Jewish sect, and it quickly became appealing to non-Jews — and the Romans.

As the faith grew in numbers, Christianity was tolerated.   The catacombs started as secret burial grounds, but in time it didn’t matter.   There were so many Christians and Rome had a history of tolerating diversity (given the size of the empire) that any persecution faded.

Luckily the sun went behind the clouds so the Tevere river was peaceful; Castel Sant Angelo in the background (near the Vatican)

Finally the emperor Constantine (272-337) lifted the ban on Christianity and himself converted.  After his death Christianity was made the religion of the empire.    This wasn’t just a spiritual choice, but a practical one.   The empire was cracking and Romans were less willing to go into the military then ever before — they preferred a comfortable life.   Many refused because of their religion — early Christianity was a pacifist religion.  Christ didn’t fight back, he knew that the real world was the spiritual world.   Better to suffer or die in the material world than to risk your eternal spiritual soul by breaking God’s commandments.

Now the Romans had put the Christians in a quandary:  Do you let the now Christian empire collapse so the pagans take over?   Or do you fight to save Christianity?    Augustine (354-430) answers that you can fight — but only if it is a just war.   That wouldn’t be enough.   In 476 Romulus Augustulus was deposed as the last Emperor (though the eastern Byzantine Empire would continue)   The Barbarians may have defeated the Roman Empire, but they ultimately converted to Rome’s new religion.

As the world fell apart, Augustine espoused a spiritual theology that distrusted the material world.   The material world tempted humans to break God’s commands, and thus should not be the focus of our life.   With that other-worldly view, Europeans quickly lost the knowledge held by the Romans and life became local and defined by tradition.   The idea of progress was non-existent.   Better technology was in the past; this life was to simply get through so one could move on to eternal joy.

While some blame the Church for stifling creativity, the charge is unfair.   The world was changing in a way that would have destroyed Roman knowledge anyway.  What the Church did was actually preserve as much as they could, taking books and other artifacts up into monasteries where Roman knowledge was protected, even if it was also ignored.    Without Christianity we may not have had the renaissance because there may not have been enough knowledge to rediscover.

Augustine’s theology also linked the Christian world with Greek thought, particularly Plato’s idealism.   Many said God sent Plato to Greece to prepare the way for Christianity.  That idealism — the turning away from the material realm to focus on the spiritual — led to a world where tradition would dominate and change was extremely slow.

Fast forward to the 1200s.   Information and texts had been seeping into Europe from the Islamic world, generating a new interest in old Roman ideas and knowledge.  In 1066 the first modern university opened in Bologna.   By the 1200s Islamic rationalist scholars like Averroes and Avicenna were read in Christian Europe, creating an intellectual wave of dissent.

Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) would stand out as the figure who pushed the church into accepting Aristotle and making progress and a focus on the material as well as the spiritual acceptable.   This set in motion the process we’ve been discussing whereby humanism and ultimately a belief in abstract reason and the laws of nature would push aside religious authority.   The church tried to make Aristotle an authority not to be question, but as we’ve seen, Galileo and others would themselves read Aristotle and recognize that his philosophy went against unquestioning obedience to authority in intellectual matters.

Two students (Diana and Chris) wanted a "good restaurant;" we had an unbelievably delicious meal

While the ideas had been growing well before the 1200s, and change would have come to Europe even if Thomas had not been born in Napoli in 1225, he functions along with Augustine as convenient bookends for the a broad view of the history of western civilization.   From Augustine on the Church prevents a total collapse of Roman knowledge and civilization, and provides an other-worldly theology that supports a generally peaceful if stagnate feudalism.

My new Facebook profile

With Aquinas the process begins for the West to take off with unprecedented progress and change.   We saw it start with Giotti, whose work was just 30 years after Aquinas died, through Galileo, and now the globalized world of smart phones and materialism dominant.

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