Tuesday, September 30, 2008

The Monastery or the French Fry?

Over the past few days I have been mulling over a conversation I had recently about the need to locate the "value proposition " in liberal arts education for our students' future employers.  Apparently those who hire our grads don't quite get how our work addresses their needs and bottom lines. 

Whenever this conversation arises--as as it does with tedious regularity--I am always reminded of a depressing little article I once ran across.  Called “The Organization Man Goes to College,” it details the efforts of a major U.S. corporation to exploit the value of liberal arts education for grooming middle managers into top executives.  Here's the gist:

In the early 1950s, AT& T selected a small number of talented middle managers and reassigned them for nine months of intensive liberal arts education (philosophy, literature, art, music, history).  The motive for this was economic. The company felt  its younger middle managers (former GIs from World War II) lacked the polish and sophistication to move into the upper reaches of corporate management. Another part was political: the company saw the liberal arts as a way of uniquely competing against the technical lead of the Soviet Union. There was a perceived crisis of business conformity and overspecialization in the 1950s, and AT& T felt humanistic education might make its managers more capable of nuanced, creative thinking.

An English professor designed the curriculum, which had four parts: philosophy, literature, arts and science. The budding CEOs read world literature and spent a good deal of time analyzing Joyce’s Ulysses. There were first-class lectures and intimate seminars. The managers also took field trips to visit museums and attend concerts. The coursework ended with seminar on American culture called “The Lonely Crowd,” in which the subject of social conformity was studied through analyses of literature and the arts.

This was an experiment, so these middle managers were extensively watched and interviewed by corporate psychologists to assess whether the company's investment was paying off. Testing and evaluation were important at every step. At first the reports were positive, but over time AT & T’s top leadership began to harbor doubts. The author of the article, Mark D. Bowles, writes,
At a private dinner for recent graduates held at the Philadelphia Racquet Club… [each man was} asked what he learned from the coursework. The first man responded, “Now things are different. I still want to get along in the company, but now I realize that I owe something to myself, my family, my community.” The second man said, “Before this course, I was like a straw floating with the current down the stream. The stream was the Bell Telephone Company. I don’t think I will ever be that straw again.” It was at this point that executives began to realize that liberal arts training had the potential to undermine worker loyalty and commitment to AT& T.
So the company brought in an outside evaluator, one who had no stake in whether the program continued or rolled up. This evaluator said he was unable to tell whether the program was effective or not. Then an AT & T committee took up the problem, finally issuing a report in early 1958. The report was thorough and unbiased, but it concluded that the only way to make good managers was to put them in charge of something and hold them accountable. Subsequent studies of managers in the program concluded that
  • One-third of participants felt that “as a result of the program’s influence, the telephone company was not the be-all and end-all” that it was previously.
  • 25 percent of participants became more tolerant of liberal political systems.
  • Some managers had begun to question capitalism and free enterprise.
  • Many had become more critical about the way business fulfilled its role in the economy.
By 1960, Ma Bell had pulled the plug.

So there you have it. It’s a bad idea to teach the American workforce to think for itself. It’s that or it has no effect whatsoever on being a quality employee. Take your pick. One thing that you can’t deny, though, is the world’s inevitable movement toward rationalizing everything through then lens of marketplace imperatives.  Anything that gets in the way of this (like teaching people to think for themselves) will be flattened.

Eventually the folks in for-profit education are going to do to education what Ray Kroc did to the potato.  Sometimes I wonder if it isn't about time to hole up in monasteries.

Monday, September 29, 2008

The One-Headlight Club

I am, for whatever reason, constitutionally incapable of being well-organized. I misplace things, forget things, and am always just two steps ahead of catastrophe. I do try, and I believe it's important to be organized, but I've come to accept that I will never will be very good at it. I first came to this conclusion many years ago. I had an old car, a 1981 Toyota Supra, and one day the right headlight went out. I knew I had to get it fixed--driving around with one headlight will get you a ticket in this state--but somehow I could never get around to it. I kept saying to myself, "I really have got to get that fixed."

For over six months I drove around town with one headlight and worried that I'd get pulled over by a cop (never did, thankfully). Anyway, I quickly realized something I had never noticed before. There are actually a lot of people driving around with just one headlight. One night I found that three of the four cars at a four-way stop had only one headlight. I almost began to think of us one-headlight people as de facto members of a club. We were the people who couldn't get our acts together, who couldn't even be organized enough to carry out proper car maintenance.

I sometimes wondered during these months if the rest of our lives were equally disorganized. We probably had bills even now laying behind the couch and important papers in misplaced shoe boxes. Well, one day I decided enough. This was ridiculous. I just had to make a change. So I took a day off work, drove my car in, and got it fixed. The pride I felt as I drove away from that garage was immense. I had finally done it. I had set my sites on a goal, made an effort, and gotten myself back into the two-headlight world, a place I could remain if I really wanted.

Three days later the left headlight went out.

I sometimes tell this story in class to illustrate the concept of irony, an idea that is best thought of as a continuum. Irony can be funny on a small scale: "I thought I was getting my act together only to have life kick me in the shins." Change the story to a woman who has a cancerous tumor successfully removed from her right breast only to discover three weeks later an even bigger and fatal one in her left, and now it is not so funny. It's tragic.

So this morning in my Humanities section we start discussing Oedipus, a play laced with tragic irony. I have noticed something over the years, too. My students don’t get tragedy. The very words—tragic hero—seem a contradiction to them. How can a character like Oedipus, a man who has committed terrible mistakes, be seen as heroic? They just wrinkle their freckled little noses when I make the case that he is. Yet the Greeks certainly believed there was something heroic in a figure like Oedipus.

Of course, anyone who starts a sentence with the phrase “the Greeks believed…” is already half wrong. The Greeks thought and believed many things and were seldom in agreement. At one time or another they made powerful arguments both for and against democracy. Some Greek thinkers eloquently held justice to be the highest good; others argued it was merely what the wealthy and powerful desired. Some argued that knowledge of divine truths was possible; others that there were no divine truths to know.

Did they value the ideal warrior-hero and Olympic champion? Certainly, but they sometimes ridiculed these types. Similarly, Socrates argued that the best life was not obtained through riches, fame or glory. The attainment of these, he argued, came from mere chance or the ignorant opinions of others. For Socrates the best life for a human being was one of rational self-examination in pursuit of truth. But to what degree is this kind of life possible or even advisable? Maybe it's not. Maybe we are all in the one-headlight club.

The Greek playwright Sophocles seems to be wrestling with just these ideas in Oedipus the King. Throughout the play, Oedipus grimly follows the Delphic advice to know oneself. Like Socrates, he dedicates himself to discovering the truth, and--also like Socrates--he is told more than once to quit asking troublesome questions, to drop it and leave well enough alone. He stubbornly refuses.

And why wouldn't he? Oedipus’s cleverness and daring rescued the city from the Sphinx many years earlier, and there is every indication that he has been a good king and a devoted husband to Jocasta. True, he is a bit rash and overly confident in his abilities, but life up to this point has given him few reasons to doubt his abilities. Even so, before the play’s end, he will undo all that he has accomplished.

Overhanging everything is a heavy sense of inevitability. Oedipus can do little to forestall his fate (or kairos). It would be a mistake, however, to confuse Greek notions of fate with the Christian idea of predestination, a doctrine that believed one's salvation or damnation was predetermined by God. Kairos is different. Life, the Greeks thought, presented us with a few fateful moments. These kairotic moments require us to choose our actions carefully. Indeed, a reluctance to act in such moments is as fateful a choice as any other, for the kairotic moments do not come again; and the choice once made determines all that follows.

Oedipus' killing of his father at a lonely crossroads was such a moment, as was his decision to leave Corinth to defy the prophesy that he would murder his father and wed his mother. Could he have avoided his fate? Possibly. What if he had vowed never to murder any man or wed any woman? The tragedy of Oedipus is ultimately one of blindness, a metaphor that Sophocles sprinkles liberally throughout the play. If it is true that life presents us with kairotic moments--alignments of events and possibilities that must be seized-- there is no accompanying guarantee that we will recognize these moments when they appear. In Oedipus, Sophocles lays out the prospect that we might even be life-time members of the No Headlight Club.

The philosopher Aristotle, one of literature's first dramatic critics, defined the effect of plays like Oedipus the King as one that arouses in the audience emotions of pity and fear to affect a catharsis. The meaning of the term catharsis is much debated. In its most general sense it seems to mean a beneficial purging of emotions. By arousing pity and fear, tragedy may put an audience in touch with some deeper and more emotionally complex understanding of the human experience. Consequently, a tragic hero like Oedipus is not a stand-in for the person we aspire to be; rather, he is the person we fear it all too easy to become.

So we pity Oedipus because we know that we are just as prone to error and blindness. Indeed, his story questions the degree to which we can rationally aim ourselves at the best kind of life. After all, we might do everything right, act on the best information available and with the best of intentions, yet still commit unspeakable horrors. In the end, Oedipus oddly earns our admiration not for his worldly achievements or inner sense of conviction, but because he has the honesty and endurance to face one of the most discomfiting truths of life: our wisdom is limited.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Pagan Days of Glory

I had such an amazing day in the classroom yesterday. We were starting a new text (one I haven't taught before), which always makes me a bit uneasy. Teaching new books is like learning a new dance step. You're clumsy at first and find it hard to know when or even how to move. How do I make the transition from what we've been discussing to this new discussion? Where are my points of contact? Will they get it?

So I'm jumpy and nervous about how class will go, but I've got my gimmicky question exercise to fall back on. So we do the exercise and the students ask really good ones. The discussion is rich and everyone is involved. If you teach for very long, you begin to realize how rare, wonderful and precious such days are. You are doing what you love and doing it well. Whenever I get the gift of one of these days, I am high for about two or three hours after class. I know that sounds goofy, but it's true. It was such a good day that I couldn't help re-running it through my mind again on the bus this morning. And suddenly I was also thinking about Hector. Ostensibly, the Iliad is a poem about Achilles, but the gods do give Hector his day of glory in battle.

And that's just how poetry sneaks up on you. You're on the bus, you're thinking about work, and somehow a scrap of poetry comes roiling up in your brain like that little polyhedron that surfaces to the plastic window on a Magic 8-ball. Suddenly a line or image is there wanting to be played with, thought about, danced across your tongue.

I often intuitively find my way back to poems. Just last weekend, for instance, I had this strange feeling that I ought to read Wallace Stevens’ Sunday Morning, a poem I have often admired for its beauty without fully appreciating its concerns. Maybe that’s because I first read it when I was too young. Now, on the brink of middle age, I watch my six-year old son discover the world. I can see it through his eyes and my own. Unlike him, however, I know I won’t see it forever. Hector knows in his heart he is doomed, but he does get his day of glory. We all do. Knowing they can't last forever makes them even more beautiful.

Last weekend my son and I shared an exquisite pear, just sat at the dining room table and let the juice sluice down our throats. I found myself thinking that there would be a last time for me (and him) to taste such a pear. Over the weekend, too, I let him look through my telescope at the mountains of the moon and heard him say, “I see it, dad!” And somewhere, intuitively, I was aware that there would be a last time for each of us to look upon the moon, to climb a tree, to walk across a fresh cut lawn.

And so Sunday Morning came leaping out to me by virtue of that pear we shared over the weekend. Stevens writes of the spiritual delectation of being alive, of processing the sensuousness of experience, but also that this sensuousness emerges from knowledge of our mortality and transience. He considers the human longing for the absolute and divine, but finds it lacking. And I nod and say if there are no pears or tongues or mountains of the moon in heaven, then let the ripeness of this one fruit—which can exist only for such a brief time—be enough. Of heaven, he asks,

Why set pear upon those river-banks
Or spice the shores with odors of the plum?
Alas, that they should wear our colors there,
The silken weavings of our afternoons,
And pick the strings of our insipid lutes!
Death is the mother of beauty, mystical,
Within whose burning bosom we devise
Our earthly mothers waiting, sleeplessly...

The bough of summer and the winter branch.
These are the measure destined for her soul...
Mine too.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

What is the Question?

Well, things went a little better last night in the capstone seminar. I just had to go back to an old trick, something I've used before. So here's what I did. I first laid out a criteria for a good knowledge-generating question. I had them write three questions about the text. Then I had them select what they thought was their strongest and most provocative question, the one that would generate the most discussion and insight into the text. I have to tell them that the goal is to generate discussion or they'll ask content/factoid questions or yes/no questions. They've been in school so long that in many cases will think I am looking for test questions: What was Thomas Edison's middle name? What year was Israel founded? And why shouldn't they ask these kinds of questions? In many cases, that's what students have been conditioned to think learning is.

Next, I asked them to evaluate their own questions using the "good question" criteria. They had to choose the best one. Then I put each student's question on the board and we discussed which would be the most effective for unpacking the text's main ideas. The point was to put them (not me) in charge of analyzing the text, but also to get them to think meta-cognitively about knowledge generation.

This business of getting students to pose better questions has been something I've toyed with periodically. A few years ago I did a literature search to find out if there existed any research on teaching people how to ask better questions. To my stupefaction I discovered there is nothing out there on this issue: zip, nada, bupkis. There's a lot about how to pose test questions, or how teachers can ask better questions, and a tons of stuff about how to ask market research questions, but nothing on teaching students how to craft better, more useful questions to generate understanding and clarity.

This astonished me. Here we have the single most useful learning tool in human history--a well-formed question--and learning how to pose one is not a part of any curriculum. Outside of explaining what a question mark is in first grade, the subject is never addressed! Think about that. We spend more time teaching students how to do PowerPoint presentations than we do showing them how to formulate an essential tool for accessing knowledge. I sometimes wonder to what degree society really wants people to ask a lot of good questions. Let's face it: questions are dangerous. Maybe that's why colleges and universities are more likely to offer you free laptops than lessons in how to ask good ones.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Where Socrates Went Wrong (and got it right)

Socrates believed that the bad were simply misinformed, that if they rationally understood what was truly good they would slap their foreheads, say d'oh, and become good. Aristotle recognized the error of this, and even explained how it is we go bad. Yet time and again Socrates’ misreading of human nature reappears. Indeed, much of modern educational theory tacitly assumes that if we could only write better lesson plans, teach differently, get back to the basics, or become more “hands-on” that all students would finally love learning. But this is no more true than the vain notion that warnings on packs of cigarettes will dissuade people from taking up smoking, or that an awareness of fat content will cause people to eat better.

The truth is that knowing what’s good for us and wanting what’s good for us are quite separate things. All students know that they need to study; they know that blowing off the reading and sleeping through class is ruinous to academic success, but knowing this does not prevent it from happening. And you can frame the argument in faultless Socratic logic; you can show students the statistics about projected income and career possibilities for those without degrees, but it will be in vain. In the end, a not insignificant number of people just don’t like learning any more than they have to.

So Socrates was wrong: merely pointing out our bad reasoning is not enough to set us on the right path. As errors go, however, his was awfully high-minded. After all, the acceptance that teaching is a waste of effort on some students usually results in an ugly brand of elitism. It certainly did in the cases of Aristotle and Plato. For Socrates, though, reason was the common point of contact for all human beings. It was the essence of being human.

He assumed that all people could, if they wished, become rational creatures and act in their true best interests. That we can’t and never have is painfully true. The problem is that his assumption about human nature is also the premise of democracy, a theory of government that presumes people can collectively govern themselves in their best interests. Such societies, if they wish to remain democracies, must educate all equally in spite of the glaring truth that not all can be equally educated, which makes the whole enterprise fundamentally inefficient, costly, frustrating, and vitally necessary.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Blank and Suspicious

It was bound to happen (and it did). For the first time this semester, I really stunk it up. I went into class last night without bothering to devise some flashy gimmick to engage the students in active learning. Instead, I thought I could simply lead them in a discussion of the material. But they were having none of it. I would ask a question and all I would get was silence and somnolent stares. I must have looked desperate as I tried to gin up that discussion. Imagine yourself as a nightclub comedian who knows he's bombing yet must stay out there at all costs. You don't even have the saving grace of getting booed off stage.

So, as I always do when this occurs, I went to my "A" material too quickly, which meant that I was pretty much done with what I had prepared in the first hour (and still had over an hour to go). Nothing was working and I could see on the students' faces that they thought the entire course was a waste of time. I half agreed with them. In The Courage to Teach, the author and educator Parker Palmer writes about "The Student from Hell," the student you fear is sitting in your classroom painfully enduring your efforts and thinking his or her time is being wasted. Palmer speaks of how he can become obsessed with such students, making them indices of his own inadequacy. I know just what he means. I do this all the time. Fail to reach that student, I think to myself, and it proves how much I stink. I find myself saying "if only I put more effort into it. If only I were smarter, more clever, more engaging..."

Then I try to recall a line from Walt Whitman's great poem Crossing Brooklyn Ferry:

It is not upon you alone that the dark patches fall,
the dark threw its patches upon me also;
The best that I had done seem’d to me blank and suspicious;
My great thoughts, as I supposed them,
were they not in reality meager?

Yes, Walt, the dark patches fall upon me too, but then I get up and do it again. Courage to teach indeed.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Human Excellence 2.0

Today my Humanities class starts to discuss The Apology. I asked last Friday if anyone had read it before and only one student said yes. So this is perhaps their first introduction to Socrates, or as I will bill him: Human Excellence 2.0. For with the life and death of Socrates, the Greeks find an entirely new kind of hero to venerate. For centuries they had modeled themselves after the martial-warrior hero, a figure who succeeds in competition and emerges with glory, fame, honor, and wealth.

Socrates will challenge this notion of heroism. He will argue that one's excellence (or arete as the Greeks called it) is solely an internal matter. For Socrates, good human beings are those who question every assumption, retaining only the ones that meet reason's demand for consistency, logic, and evidence. Moreover, such people will act only on their internally-arrived at convictions about what is right and wrong and never as a result of external rewards or punishments. You might call such a person an intellectual-moral hero. This person is willing to die not for fame or glory, but for his or her conscience.

Although considered a key figure in philosophy, Socrates left no written record of his thinking. What we know of his ideas and philosophical method comes primarily from his student, Plato, who used Socrates as a character in his own philosophical dialogs. It is often difficult to determine whether Plato accurately portrays Socrates' ideas or if he uses him only as a mouthpiece for his own. Nevertheless, we can piece together something of Socrates' approach to philosophy from Plato's representations of him.

Socrates was a creature of the city and delighted in serious discussions with his fellow citizens. He was also skeptical of conventional wisdom, a habit that did not endear him to many people. His questions invariably aimed at uncovering the truth of a given issue. Indeed, one of his' most important legacies to philosophy has been his method for asking questions to get at the truth. This process, known as the dialectic, usually went something like this: Socrates would approach someone who claimed to have knowledge of a subject and ask him to define an important but abstract term. He might ask, for example, "What is courage?"

The so-called expert would then venture a definition (known as a thesis). The expert might say something like "courage is fearlessness." Socrates would then rigorously question this thesis to see if it held up. He might ask if it is possible to be fearless because you are unaware of the danger, and would such fearlessness also be courageous? In light of this question, the so-called expert would have to abandon the original thesis and produce a new one (the antithesis). "Well," he might now say, "courage is fearlessness in the face of a known danger."

And again Socrates' questions would rip into this new definition to find whether it was logically consistent. He might point out that a kidnapper knowingly faces dangers to steal children. Would this be an act of courage? "No," the expert might respond, "Courage is facing known danger for a good cause, not a wicked one." This new idea would be a synthesis of the older abandoned ideas with some new elements thrown in, but the process of proposing definitions and testing them against others wasn't over. In fact, it had just begun.

Watching someone get the full-Socratic treatment (especially if that person was a pompous blowhard) must have been a hoot. Being that someone, however, could not have been much fun, for Socrates' carefully-structured questions quickly revealed that most people had no idea what they were talking about. Indeed, he claimed that most people operated on unexamined pseudos (false beliefs). For Socrates, the unexamined life was not worth living for a human being. It wasn't a human life at all. It was the animal existence of responding only to external rewards and punishments (the whip and the sugar cube). Human beings alone, he argued, are capable of acting on reason and principle, and good ones always do.

Eventually the Athenians grew annoyed with Socrates, the critic who was always questioning and raising doubts. And in a small society it's easy to see that a few hundred people might want to get rid of him. So in 399 BC they tried him on various trumped-up charges. He had several chances to save his skin, but Socrates proved stubborn until the end. After his conviction, he was asked what penalty he should receive. He asked for free dinners for life to repay him for all the good he had done Athens!

I love teaching The Apology. The students always complain that they didn't get it when they read it, but by the end of one class period they will be arguing passionately about whether the Socrates model of Human Excellence 2.0 is a great innovation or a road map to trouble. (It's both.)

Friday, September 19, 2008

Did I Miss Anything Important?

The following is an email exchange I had with an oft-absent student:


Sorry about missing the last 3 days of class. I missed Monday and Wednesday because I got very sick (a little better today though), and i missed today's class because my grandmother is in the hospital because she blacked out so I went to see her. Did I miss anything important?


And my response:


Hope you're grandmother is feeling better now. As to what you missed? Let's see... Well, I laid out the definitions of heroism in the Iliad (both for Achilles and Hector). Then I compared these definitions to Socrates’ new definition of human excellence, which prizes intellectual and moral courage. Next, I led the class through an absolutely brilliant analysis of The Apology, and today I was on fire (possessed by the muses, you might say) as I led the class in a step-by-step analysis of The Crito.

I then used a personal anecdote to delineate the difference between ‘eye-for-an-eye justice’ and justice based on Socrates’ new standard. Indeed, my unpacking of the anecdote cleared a great deal of false thinking from the clouded minds of my students, many of whom nodded with enlightened agreement along the way.

Lastly, I concluded the session with great drama and flair by asking the class a searching question. Which is the more heroic struggle in human life: defeating one's enemy in glorious military combat (a la Achilles), or leading an examined life of reasoned conviction and moral virtue? You could have heard a pin drop. The students were enraptured. Some even confessed as we were leaving the classroom that their lives had been profoundly transformed.

Other than that, we didn't do much. See you Monday.

(Read Oedipus)

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Don't Blink (And Don't Use the Force)

A few years ago a writer by the name of Malcolm Gladwell wrote a wildly popular book he entitled Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. Gladwell's thesis was that human beings have innate instinctual abilities that provide them with fast, accurate assessments of how to act or react to given situations. He noted that many of us form amazingly accurate snap judgments about strangers or potential dangers in as few as two seconds. This ability makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. Those of our ancestors who weren't any good at sizing up potential dangers probably didn't last long enough to pass on the their traits, while those good at fast instinctive judgments did.

Gladwell was careful to include many caveats about how our instincts often go wrong and mislead us, but you only have to scan the reviews on Amazon.com to see how most of his readers ignored these caveats while embracing with enthusiasm the idea that it is possible to think well without having to actually think. Indeed, Gladwell's book was on the New York Times best sellers list for months and sold over a million copies. People loved it. How wonderful it would be if our gut instincts were always wise choices and, like Luke in Star Wars, we could switch off our on-board computer and just use the force. But the truth is that unreflective animal instincts, while useful in some emergencies, more often lead us astray.

And the problems arising from unreflective choices is one of the themes in the Iliad. Rage, lust, mindless grief, all these can be self-destructive reactions. Yesterday in class we were looking at Book XXIV and the scene where Achilles reclaims his humanity in an act of compassion toward Priam, the man whose son he has just killed. Humanity in the Iliad is often presented as susceptible to irrational and self-destructive behavior. At the same time, though, there are these moments of greater awareness, moments when characters gain insight into their actions. Agamemnon comes to realize that he has been foolish in dishonoring Achilles, and Achilles eventually realizes that he has gone too far in his anger and grief over Patroclus' death. In short, though we are prone to irrationality, it is possible for us to examine our actions, to weigh them, to think about what we are doing. This idea, which is subtly expressed in the Iliad, will become a major theme when the class starts The Apology on Monday.

There Socrates will argue that "thinking without thinking" (i.e., acting on instinct) is never what a good human being should do. It may be a fine life for an animal, but not a human being. To some degree a suspicion of our natural instincts pervades higher education. Science, for example, often requires us to override our immediate sense experience to get at the truth. On their face Newton's laws are deeply counter-intuitive. It may be true that an object set in motion will keep going forever unless acted upon by a countervailing force, but come on. Don't we secretly suspect that it will eventually run out of energy and stop?

Similarly, ethical arguments generally conflict with our natural instincts. Socrates argued we ought to think for ourselves rather than give into the tribal instinct to go along with the crowd. Christ urged us to treat our neighbors as ourselves even if they don't respond in kind (clearly a counter-instinctual demand). We also spend a great deal of time in higher education trying to get students to understand other cultures, norms and traditions in order to get them not to judge others through the lens of their instinctive group identifications and biases. All this is why most academic subjects are called "disciplines." The aim is to discipline the mind to think one way and not in its usual instinctive patterns.

So Gladwell was probably on to something. We do have amazing natural instincts. But Socrates, Newton, and Homer were also on to something when it comes to our instincts. On this point I am often reminded of Katherine Hepburn in the film The African Queen. Humphrey Bogart plays Charlie Alnut, a leering boat captain who propositions Hepburn with the line, "Hey, I'm a man, you're a woman. It's only natural." To which Hepburn responds, "Nature, Mr. Alnut, is what we're supposed to be better than."

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Miles and miles of it...

If the Iliad were a modern Hollywood screenplay it wouldn't last much beyond the events in Book XXII. I mean what's the point? We've had the climactic battle. Achilles has slain Hector just as Batman inevitably dispatches the Joker. We know who wins, so why drag it on for a few more books?

But Homer does drag it on because he's an artist and being an artist means telling the truth about what's just happened. And the truth is that the crap is just getting started. And I do mean crap. We get a sense of this right away when Homer takes us back inside Troy's walls to witness the consequences of Hector's death. Achilles' great martial-warrior hero triumph--his achievement of Human Excellence 1.0--is immediately followed by three harrowing lamentations. Priam, Hector's father, who has been watching from the walls, has to be restrained from running to his slain son. He begs to be released, rolls in the dung, and groans pitifully:

My grief for him will lay me in the earth.
Hector! You should have died in my arms, son!
Then we could have satisfied our sorrow,
Mourning and weeping, your mother and I.

Then Hecuba, Hector's mother, gives voice to her grief:

How can I live with suffering like this,
With you dead? You were the only comfort
I had, day and night.

And lastly we come to Andromache, who has yet to be told the news. Her reaction is the hardest to read because it comes on her slowly as the fulfillment of her greatest fear. She hears Hecuba's piercing scream and trembles. She knows, but cannot be certain: "My heart is in my throat," she says. "My knees are like ice. Something terrible has happened to one/of Priam's sons. O God, I'm afraid..." Anyone with an elderly parent or a son or daughter at war knows this moment. It's the moment when the phone rings in the middle of the night and all of your worst fears arise as you walk to the receiver.

An act of senseless rage, an act of mindless lust, Eros and Thanatos, and from it spring miles and miles of crap. I was once in a bar when a guy I knew lost his temper and hit another guy over the head with a beer bottle. Do you have any idea how much miserable crap resulted from that one moment of ungoverned anger? Court dates, lost work, hospital bills, jail time. And today on the bus, some junior high boys were snickering about how many of the girls in their class were already pregnant. Babies born to babies, opportunities lost. Rage and lust, Eros and Thanatos. On and on it goes.

Human actions do have consequences. Paris' lustful choice had consequences. Agamemnon's choice of duty over his daughter will come to have many consequences, and certainly Achilles' decision to turn his back on his fellow Greeks led to Patroclus' death. So, yes, the great Achilles can win the fight. He can become the greatest warrior of all time, but there seems little heroism in his butchery of Hector, which is accomplished more through blind, inhuman rage than bravery.

So, unlike a Hollywood screenplay, it's not really over. It's never over. There are still miles and miles of crap ahead.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Side Benefits

Last week I had my students debate which ethical system had integrity: Machiavelli's or Stephen Carter's? Carter wrote a book that we use in the senior capstone. He defines integrity as a three-step process involving moral discernment, acting on the arrived at moral principle even and especially in the face of adversity, and stating openly one's reasons for acting. So I gave the class a workplace scenario asking whether a manager should keep a promise to an employee when the circumstances under which the promise was made have changed.

Carter's three-step process might allow people to come out with opposing solutions and still be considered people of integrity. Why? Because his definition involves a process rather than an outcome. Machiavelli, on the other hand, also operates with integrity, but to the outcome rather than the process. He argued in The Prince that the ultimate good is the safety, prosperity and stability of the state. Anything the leader does (lie, break promises, break laws) is justified so long as it accomplishes this outcome.

The prince is moral, Machiavelli argues, and he's always faithful to his responsibility to preserve, protect, and defend the state. Note: Machiavelli doesn't say the leader should always lie and break promises, but, given political reality and the fact that other leaders are treacherous, the prince must be prepared to do what is necessary. You don't win on Survivor Island by lying too much or too little. You win by lying when you have to and retaining the appearance of integrity. Possess the real thing, Machiavelli argues, and you won't be around long.

Anyway, I divided the class into two groups and made them debate who was right. One thing the pro-Carter side said in response to the Machiavelli side really struck me as an interesting line of argument. The Machiavellites had pointed out that without the state, all the good things of life are at risk (family, friendship, security); consequently the leader is justified in doing what is necessary to preserve the state. He's acting in the common good.

The Caterites responded that today's 24-hour news channels made it harder to operate in the Machiavellian fashion. This isn't 16th-century Renaissance Italy. The exposure of lies and treachery is magnified by the mass media tenfold and this contributes to a broader cynicism and lack of trust in social institutions. Moreover, this cynicism and lack of trust can be just as dangerous to the state as an external enemy. I thought this was a pretty powerful rebuttal. And the statements above only reinforce the idea that running on a platform that either exploits or produces the cynical view that the whole concept of government is bad (or that all politicians are scum) can prove dangerous. This kind of politics will not lead to a healthy state, for it ultimately undermines the very stability it claims to uphold.

One of the best side benefits to teaching is getting a free education from students.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Where to begin...

Every once in a while my students quote a line or two of scripture in their essays. I usually have a mixed reaction to this. On the one hand, I am happy that whatever we are reading and discussing in class has provoked a strong response. When students bring their faith into the debate it is often because something important is at stake, and I want students to feel that something is at stake when we wrestle with ideas in class.

My excitement, however, does not usually last long. More often than not, students employ scripture as a kind of high-powered-argument-stopper, not unlike the 16-ton weight that used to drop from the ceiling to end Monty Python sketches. Often the following phrase (or one quite like it) appears after a quotation from scripture: "The Bible says it, I believe it, end of story." At this point, I set the paper aside and wonder where to begin.

I could try to explain the long history of Biblical exegesis, to detail the many translation issues that arise when going from Hebrew to Greek to Latin to English, or to sum up any of a dozen crises over orthodoxy. I might even tell them of attempts by theologians to justify Christianity with reason, an effort that culminated in St. Thomas Aquinas' admission that no rational argument can be found to support major elements of the Christian doctrine (the Trinity, the incarnation of Christ, the creation of the world by God from nothingness). These must be accepted on faith alone.

In his 1945 masterpiece Mimesis, the literary critic Erich Auerbach pointed out that biblical stories are often structured to demand more interpretive effort, not less. As Auerbach suggested, the very lack of detail in the Abraham and Isaac story lends it a powerful psychological depth and moral seriousness. It invites us to enter into imaginative speculation about Abraham's dilemma, which we can only do by placing ourselves in his situation. Here, the Bible doesn't serve up meaning. It impels us into the search for it.

I know of course why my students fear the idea of interpreting scripture. Though they are largely unaware of post modernist hand-wringing over the uncertainty of language, some high school teacher somewhere has told them that it is okay for a poem, short story, or novel to have more than one meaning. As a result, they suspect that interpretation lowers the Bible to the status of fiction. On perhaps a less conscious level, they may also grasp that opening the door to interpretation leads to a crisis of authority.

What can I say to them? It does. Certain troubling questions unavoidably arise when we acknowledge that the Bible cannot be read without interpreting it. Chief among these are who gets to decide what it means? Is any one interpretation better than any other? And if the answer to that question is no, then are we all free to make up our own understanding? That's a frightening place for many students to go, but getting nudged into it is part of what growing up means.

So the appearance of scripture as an argument-stopper in a student essay marks an important step in a long and crisis-filled epistemological journey. It indicates that something deep and meaningful has started to occur. Indeed, many of my students are living the Reformation, the Counter Reformation, and the Enlightenment each week. They are struggling with issues as tumultuous and fraught with spiritual peril today as they ever were for a 16th-century German monk or a citizen in Calvin's Geneva.

So sometime soon I will again be at my desk grading papers (or at the dining room table at home), and I will look down to see a line of scripture in a student essay. It will be placed there with desperate earnestness in the hopes of ordering at last the meaning of the universe: "The Bible says it, I believe it, and that's the end of it." Once again I will wonder what I can possibly say. Who am I to suggest that the end of it is still very far away?

Friday, September 12, 2008

Textbooks Make you Dumber

A while back there was a flurry of newspaper articles pondering whether Google is making us dumber. I don't think so. I think it's the textbooks. The worst thing about most of them is that they are premised upon the assumption that learning is simply a transfer of information: "Here are the key points, here is a timeline, here is the chapter summary."

That's okay if learning is simply an instance of ingesting data to be spit out for immediate use (as in looking up a number in the phone book). The problem is that such learning does not last (or it lasts about as long as it takes you to dial the number). It's bulimic learning. You just shove data in and vomit it out, but it has little nutritional value. I sometimes try to demonstrate this in class with the following exercise:

Study the following words for 60 seconds. Then turn this sheet over and jot down as many words as you can remember: Girl, Heart, Robin, Red, Finger, Flute, Blue, Organ, Man, Hawk, Yellow, Lung, Eagle, Child, Piano.
A few students will be able to commit 12-13 words to their short term memory. Most manage around 7-8. Next, I give them a new set of words and ask them to spend some time looking for logical categories in which to sort them. For example,

Philadelphia, Apples, Mahogany, Dog, Oak, Pears, Screwdriver, Hamster, Wrench, Pine, Crowbar, Chicago, London, Cherries, Cat.
They quickly see that they can organize these into categories labeled "tools," "pets," "cities," "trees" and "fruit." They also see there are five sets of three. After they've done this, I have them list as many terms as possible. They usually nail all 15. Why? Because actually doing something with information (and not just memorizing it) is a far more effective way of mastering data. You have to construct an understanding. What's interesting is that they will still recall nearly 75 percent of the terms 24 hours later. That's why you can't tell students to go read something without giving them something to be actively doing while they are reading.

And textbooks do all of that work for you. They actually make you dumber! I mean why read about Machiavelli when you can -- oh I don't know -- read Machiavelli? The very act of wrestling with him, of trying to construct your understanding of his arguments, makes the learning stick. Plus, textbook publishers are immoral, gouging swine. There's a $300 accounting textbook in the campus book store right now. Anyone charging that much ought to earn a special place in hell.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

And as I handed back her paper

I woke up this morning thinking back to my first semester in college. The five years prior to that I had worked construction, attended an apprenticeship program with a labor union and earned a journeyman's card. But after several years in the field making good wages, I just quit one day and wandered over to a little city college to enroll. There was a lot going on in my life at that time. I had just broken up with a woman and I needed to make a change of direction. Even so, it had been almost six year's since I had last been in a classroom, and I was feeling not a little intimidated by the smell of chalk dust and all those small wood and plastic desks.

That first semester I had to take English composition and one early assignment was to write about an "interesting place." I really couldn't think of an interesting place, but I had spent the summer working in an old transient hotel downtown that was being converted to offices for some rich lawyers. It was odd the way the lawyers were so proud of preserving the hotel's history. I had half-way known a guy who had gotten shot in the hotel's bar a few year's back. It had been a rough place, filled with drunks and drifters. I couldn't help thinking that the lawyers weren't so much preserving the hotel's history as erasing it.

So I wrote about that hotel near the railroad tracks and turned it in for a grade. At the next class the professor--an elderly woman with an elaborate beehive--told us that she had read all of the essays, but one really stood out and she wanted to read it to us. I sat there in that little wood and plastic chair thinking 'I wonder if it's mine? Please let it be mine.' It was and I went home that day feeling like I had just won the World Series, Super Bowl and lottery all at once. It was the first time I allowed myself to believe that I might do okay in college. Up to that point, I hadn't been too certain about my prospects.

I'm not sure why this memory came up this morning, but there it was. Maybe it had something to do with yesterday. After class I was talking to a student about her response paper on Book VI of the Iliad. She had such wonderful insights into Hector as he tried to come to terms with his duty to Troy and his love for his family. She had written about her own struggle to get an education and raise her kid. She was doing what I want all students to do when they read great literature: to be put in touch with some deeper and more emotionally complex understanding of the human experience.

In class we had discussed how nothing in life prevents two things that we love from coming into conflict with one another. Indeed, the very course of life will almost inevitably see that they do. Hector loves his family, but he also honors his commitment to defend Troy. My student loves her son, but she is also trying to honor her commitment to earn a degree. She loves both things and they conflict. It's only the third week of class but she's missed three times for that kid. Either way she goes, something she loves has to suffer. That's life. Homer knew it. Hector knew it in trumps. In the end, the measure of our human goodness is not how well we budget our time or prioritize commitments to avoid such conflicts, but the degree to which we face the pain of them with honesty, sorrow and fortitude.

My student's paper was wonderful, but it was also filled with mechanical and grammatical errors. It simply wasn't at a skill level acceptable for a college-level course, but there was so much intelligence struggling beneath her artless prose, so much insight. She understood exactly what Homer was talking about. And as I handed back her paper (graffitied with countless correction marks), I told her how good it was.

"This is the best paper I read. I loved it," I told her before mentioning that she may want to use the writing lab on campus to address some mechanical problems. I wanted her to walk out of the classroom feeling like I did many years ago, but I feared that all she would see was the grade.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Glitch in Excellence 1.0

Today we discuss Book IX of the Iliad. If, as many scholars contend, the Iliad is ground zero of Western literature, then Book IX is ground zero of the Iliad. Okay, why is that? It's because the model for human excellence in Homeric society is about to hit a software glitch in the character of Achilles. Indeed, we might even think of Achilles as Human Excellence 1.0. He's the original program for what it means to realize one's full human potential. At first glance, of course, it may be difficult to see anything excellent about Achilles. He appears boastful, vain, ruthless, greedy, and motivated primarily by his own ego. He sells captives into slavery if they are poor and holds them for ransom if their families have money.

So far from invoking a model of human excellence, Achilles appears little better than a greedy, hot-headed thug. But we have to shed some of our modern ideas of proper behavior when we read the Iliad, for the Greeks Homer depicts have different notions about what it means to achieve excellence. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, compassion and mercy have the highest moral value, but Homer's Greeks live in a world where war is an unavoidable and constant fact of life. They adhere to a strict warrior code that puts the highest value on success and glory won in combat or competition.

Those who slay the greatest number of the enemy, who take the most hostages, and collect the most war booty are behaving properly. They earn honor (timé) among their fellow warriors. For these Greeks, disgrace is the worst imaginable sin, and dying without glory and fame a disaster to be avoided at all costs. For them, a life without glory is a lesser existence.

But the Iliad would not be considered one of the greatest works of Western literature if it were merely a poem about warriors striving to outdo each other in slaughtering their enemies. What makes the Iliad compelling is its willingness to be in conflict with itself. Homer adds complexity and pathos to his poem by showing us the horrific cost of living by the warriors' code. Make no mistake: the Iliad is not an anti-war poem. It revels in carnage and celebrates bravery, but it also makes clear the sorrow and terrible price of war.

It even dares to question the very values it advances. At the poem’s center is what scholars have come to call Achilles' choice. The great Achilles knows from his goddess mother that going to Troy will make him the most glorious warrior who has ever lived. At the same time, though, it will doom him to die in the prime of his youth. If he doesn't fight at Troy, he is promised a long and happy life, but no glory or immortal fame. The choice is his: comfortable anonymity, or a short but brilliant existence never again to be equaled.

In the end Achilles will choose to fight, but in Book IX he allows himself to question the value of fame and glory, saying to the assembled kings who have come to beg him to return to the battle:

Nothing is worth my life, not all the riches
They say Troy held before the Greeks came,
Not all the wealth in Phoebus Apollo's
Marble shrine up in craggy Pytho...

You can always get tripods and chestnut horses
But a man's life cannot be won back
Once his breath has passed beyond his clenched teeth.

Such passages reveal the sophistication of the poem, which gives us a complex vision of human life, one that is heroic and conflicted, glorious and tragic. For even though Achilles will eventually choose war over a long and peaceful life, his choice will not be without great consequences. He will lose his closest friend and very nearly his humanity itself. In short, Human Excellence 1.0 may have a glitch, but that doesn't mean we aren't still running the program. The "martial-warrior hero software" is on every football gridiron, every cover of Fortune Magazine, and every bling-wearing rap artist. It is anywhere we measure a person's worth by external factors: their success (which may be luck), their wealth, their fame and reputation. All of that is what Achilles turns his back on when he says they aren't worth the effort, they aren't worth his life.

Okay, enough of this strained software metaphor.

Here's what I want to say: the Iliad, despite all of the killing and the self-serving interventions of the gods, is a work deeply concerned with the value of human life. It challenges its readers to ask themselves what it really means to lead a good life, and what such a life will inevitably and often tragically cost us.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

The Reading Problem (part II)

In class today we discussed whether the habit of reading will whither and die in the age of Facebook, My Space, Twittering, and the ability to fill up every empty moment with electronic amusement. There is some evidence that it will. A few years ago, the National Endowment for Humanities issued a survey and found that half of all young people between the ages of 18-22 had not read any imaginative literature (novels, poetry, even comic books) in the past year.

That's certainly true among my students. In an evening seminar a while back, we were discussing a book by the classical scholar Martha Nussbaum. Her thesis was that imaginative literature has a special capacity to awaken our empathetic imagination. It can--better than any other medium--emotionally arouse a sense of compassion in us for people unlike ourselves. I asked the students to name the books that have been meaningful, life-changing, whose characters made them feel something deeply. About two-thirds of the seminar said that they have never read anything that moved them in the way I described. About half said they had never read any novel outside of those assigned in school.

"What about Charlotte's Web when you were a kid?" I asked. "Did you read that?"

A few nodded. One woman smiled.

"I balled my eyes out when Charlotte died. And that's not really a kid’s book. The first line is 'Where's poppa goin' with that axe?' It's about life, about friendship, death and loss. Can't you remember when a story like that--a good, well told story--was what you wanted more than anything?"


"I think movies are better," said one timid voice.

"Well,” I responded, “movies can be powerful, but movies are not quite the same thing, are they? A book invites you to create the characters in your mind, hear their voices. Your act of reading is intimately your own, not some whim of an editor or a director. Try reading a book after having seen the movie. How hard is it to get that actor's face out of your mind? And you hate that. You feel cheated somehow. You want that power to create back. Plus, there are only a few hundred movies made a year. There's a universe of books, which means there are infinitely more possible experiences. For heaven's sake, no one doodles on a DVD, makes notes, spills lunch, leaves bloodstains. The books in your room are the outward expression of your intellectual growth and change, annular rings of thought. There's just no comparison!"


" Yeah, but reading takes too much time."

"What, and playing on Xbox doesn't?"

"Yeah, but that's fun."

Me: Dumfounded silence.

Then again, I often think about an essay by Jonathan Franzen in his collection How to be Alone. The essay's title escapes me right now, but it gave me some hope. As a novelist with literary aspirations, Franzen has long been worried about the demise of a reading public interested in serious books. But he met a sociology professor who for years had been studying people's reading habits. Whenever this professor spotted people in public reading a weighty tome or classic piece of literature, she interviewed them on how they became a reader.

Turns out devoted readers fall into two groups. The first grew up in households where reading was the norm. Their parents read and encouraged them to read,. These homes were often stuffed with books and talk about books. The second group, greatly smaller in number, was different. Here kids became secret readers. They didn't grow up in reading families, but they discovered reading as form of escape and often hid how much they were reading from their parents and friends. Even so, they read with intensity and with devotion.

These kids tended to be more socially-isolated and introverted. Books were a way to connect to the larger world without the awkwardness of social exchange. What was interesting was that the social environment for this second group of readers didn't seem to matter or have any effect on their becoming serious readers. These people were going to be readers no matter what. Franzen concluded from this that there will always be some small, hardcore group of people who will read in spite of what happens, who will be hungry for what literature has to offer.

Phillip Larkin once wrote about faith in his wonderful poem Church Going. He said, "And that much never can be obsolete,/ Since someone will forever be surprising/ A hunger in himself to be more serious..."

There's is hope in that, I suppose.

Monday, September 8, 2008

9/11 and Book VI

This morning I have to teach Book VI of the Iliad to a room full of undergrads who probably would rather be somewhere else than in my class. Anyway, I have just been reading it in preparation and thinking how I should come at the text. I have been trying to hammer home to my students that what makes a nearly 3,000 year old poem worth readings is its relevance (a hard sell to most 18-year olds). And it strikes me all of a sudden that nothing could be more relevant as we approach the anniversary of 9/11 than teaching Book VI of the Iliad.

It begins in furious battle. The Greeks have pushed the Trojans nearly to the walls of the city and we are treated to one of those graphic Homeric lists of who killed whom and how. Amidst this slaughter, the Greek king Menelaus takes a Trojan prisoner, Adrastus, who then begs for his life with promises that his father will pay dearly to ransom him home. Menelaus is just about to order his men to take Adrastus back to camp when Agamemnon (Menelaus' brother) arrives and asks him what the hell he's doing. "Going soft, Menelaus?" asks Agamemnon. He then reminds his brother that he is Greek and no Trojan has ever shown him hospitality. Agamemnon says that every Trojan should die un-mourned, even the babies in their mother's wombs. Then he jams his spear through Adrastus, braces his heel on the dead boy's chest, and pulls the spear back out.

A short time later in Book VI, the Greek hero Diomedes, who has been butchering Trojans all day, stops before fighting with Glaucus, a Trojan he doesn't recognize. He calls out across the battle lines, "Who are you?" And Glaucus responds with a long story of his family's history. Upon hearing this story Diomedes plants his spear in the ground and swears not to fight Glaucus, for it turns out that their father's had been friends (besides there are plenty of others to kill in search of martial glory). Instead, the two men exchange their armor and clasp hands in friendship before parting to continue the fight.

Homer’s close placement of these two incidents brilliantly captures the distinction: comradeship and friendship. According to the philosopher J. Glenn Gray, the former seeks to “efface individuality--the only grounds for friendship,” while friendship, by its very nature, particularizes. It asks us to take interest in all the minutia of a person's messy singularity. Diomedes and Glaucus particularize each other and realize their relationship is a bit more complicated than that of Greek to Trojan. Comradeship, on the other hand, is a blunt form of human relationship. It simplifies rather than complicates our response to one another. Comradeship is Agamemnon reminding Menelaus that he is a Greek first and foremost. He asks his brother, “What does this man mean to you?” But it’s clearly a rhetorical question. The answer he expects is “nothing.”

In his book, War is the Force that Gives Us Meaning, the war reporter Chris Hedges writes of the ironic moments of kindness in wartime (such as Diomedes' forming a friendship with Glaucus amid the carnage of the battlefield). These moments, Hedges says, are the pinpricks of light by which humanity survives war's necessary brutalization. He writes,

The struggle to remain friends, the struggle to explore the often painful recesses of two hearts, to reach the deepest parts of another’s being, to integrate our own emotions and desires with the needs of a friend, are challenged by the collective rush to war. The only solace comes from simple acts of kindness. They are the tiny, flickering candles in a cavern of darkness that sustains our common humanity.

And this is why a 3,000-year old poem is still relevant. The sense of national unity we felt in the face of the 9/11 attacks--beautiful and heartening though it might have been--was also the drug that allowed us to simplify our identity away from our particularized selves and their messy singularity. We traded all of that for a beautiful, transitory dream of us versus them. No one denies that the submersion of the self into the group is often necessary in wartime, but Homer at least had the honesty to remind us that it isn’t always something to celebrate.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Where did I go wrong?

The traditional method for teaching an Introduction to Humanities course is to select a textbook with lots of glossy photos, chapter reviews, bullet points, and maybe even an accompanying CD Rom or website. You then march chronologically through the years, assigning the chapters and showing a few PowerPoint's of the Parthenon, Chartres, and—if you’re really cutting edge--Angkor Wat. Toss in a few edited down excerpts from important works, give the pre-packaged multiple choice test, and call it a day.

And who knows? Maybe that is the best way. But for some damned reason I got it into my head to do it differently, and now I just don't know if I made the right decision. Are they getting anything out of it? Sometimes I feel like I am talking in porpoise. I know what I am saying, but all they hear are odd, indecipherable pops, clicks, and squeaks.

My idea was this: I wanted to trace two big ideas over time: Greek humanism (what Matthew Arnold called Hellenism) and Judeo-Christian monotheism (Arnold's Hebraism). For nearly 3,000 years these two influences have combined in surprising and creative ways. Their synthesis is why we find a celebration of pagan wisdom like Raphael’s School of Athens in—of all places—the Vatican. It’s why a Greek love of the human body is fused into Michelangelo’s monumental sculpture of the young David.

It's why it is commonplace to see a wide receiver in the NFL spike the ball in ecstasy at his accomplishment and instantly drop to his knees to give the glory to God. But even though these two worldviews often intertwine, they never fully coalesce. The touchdown dance and the prayer of gratitude may be familiar to us, but we sense in them a residual uneasiness when they are too closely juxtaposed. This tension may be fertile, but it remains ultimately irresolvable. Indeed, this tension is the nucleus of Western culture.

There would be three units to this course. The first would be called “Heroism and its Discontents,” in which we would explore Greek notions of heroism as they appear in the Iliad, Plato’s Apology, and Oedipus. The second unit would be “Rome: Virtue, Vice, and Piety.” Here we would look at Senecan stoicism and Roman materialism (as it appears in the Satyricon). We would also look at portions of the New Testament and Augustine’s Confessions. The last unit would focus on the Middle-Ages: “Heaven, Hell, and Everything In-Between.” The central text here would be Dante’s Inferno.

Now, two weeks in, I realize I'm probably talking past my students, many of whom have scant awareness of ancient and medieval history. Much as I hate to admit it, there are days when I long for that glossy textbook with the accompanying pre-packaged tests.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

I Can't Be Serious

Whenever I go to airports or out to lunch in major cities, I see all these men and women yakking into cell phones, wearing nice suits, talking about money, strategy. Maybe they are heart surgeons or investment bankers. Who knows? It just seems like the world hangs on their decisions. Stuff happens as a result of their choices: buildings go up, markets expand, new devices are developed. And if they screw up, there are real consequences as well.

And then I think about what I do. What consequences are there if I fail to correct some kid's semicolon error? Will the stock market crash or India implode if I give a C- on an essay that should have gotten a D? Perhaps it would be different if I were in the sciences or social sciences. Perhaps my research would affect real change. But who needs another take on the Iliad or Moby-Dick? Who wants another re-hash of Plato's Apology? Sometimes my job doesn't seem like serious work.

I remember from grad school a professor who was an expert on John Milton. He was an amazing guy (even though he looked like someone who just came into the building to get warm). I remember him beginning class one night by saying, "Well, I suppose I better get started. The state of Illinois expects its money's worth." This struck me as funny. I hadn't really considered it before, but Illinois actually employed a professional Miltonist (probably more than one). And I wondered if there ever arose a situation in which a state official or bureaucrat down in Springfield would shout to an aide or secretary: "Where's our Miltonist! Get him down here right away! We've got a serious situation on our hands."

Not that I'm griping too much, mind you. I love teaching. I can't think of a better job than coming to work and talking about big ideas with a room full of students. I suppose, too, that the world does need its Miltonists. Still, it's fairly hard to define what that need actually is. Someone once pointed out to the great English poet W. H. Auden that "there was no money in poetry." Auden is said to have responded by pointing out that "there's no poetry in money either."

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Education IS just a Big Game

Yesterday in my senior capstone we went over The Apology. We teased out Socrates' standard for human moral excellence. My usual procedure is to argue the text's point of view until I'm reasonably sure most people have grasped it. Then I turn on the text and argue just as vigorously against it. So I had most students nodding in agreement with Socrates' argument that good human beings question all assumptions, retaining only those that meet their reason's demand for consistency, logic and evidence. Moreover, good human beings act only on their rationally-arrived at convictions about what is right and never as the result of external reward or punishment. This, the students agreed, was a high standard for personal integrity, but the right one.

Then I turned. This isn't a high standard, I argued. It's a recipe for disaster! People who follow this standard will almost certainly find themselves at odds with their society and possibly end up with the same fate as Socrates. I gave them a work scenario in which their boss proposes a bad idea that he loves and all of their co-workers endorse. What would be your fate at work if you persisted in questioning the idea and pointing out its weaknesses? The students stirred uneasily. Maybe sometimes you have to compromise, I said; you have to sit on your hands, stay in the game. That's just the reality of life. Besides, you have families to consider. It isn't just about you and your precious integrity, you know? A couple of students said there had to be a middle ground between fudging your convictions and holding them. No, I insisted, you can't switch games when it's convenient. You can't have convictions but check them when they cost you. That's not the game Socrates wants to play. Indeed, he thought his game was more important than staying alive. The students wrinkled their noses. They were a bit uncomfortable.

I like thinking about my job as a game, but few professors will admit that much of what goes on in higher education is just a big game. That's our little secret. Here's another little well-kept secret: games are as good as it gets. By game, of course, I mean the evidence-based thinking games taught and valued in higher education. After all, an academic discipline is just a set of semi-formalized rules and evidentiary standards for evaluating ideas or claims, and college professors spend most of their time trying to teach students these rules and then evaluating their performance at playing the game. The rest of the time we spend persuading students to abandon the games they have brought with them to college.

One common thinking game students play is the authority game. It works like this: to determine the answer to any question, you must consult the proper authority (mom, dad, the president, the Bible, Dr. Phil). The assumption in the authority game is that all questions have authoritative answers. Students are not in college long, however, before they realize that in many debates there is more than one authority and no way to establish whether one is more authoritative than another. After all, who's to say which interpretation of a poem is more correct? My guy says this, your gal says that, so who's right?

The realization that many questions lack authoritative answers often leads students into a kind of convenient relativism. They will argue, "Well, you can't prove your view is right, and I can't prove mine is right. So mine is just as good as yours." I can usually spot these students. They are the ones who roll their eyes and say, "What's the use of talking about this? There's no right answer." In other words, they've abandoned their old game for a new one. Now instead of going to an authority for the answer, they select the answer that is the most emotionally comfortable. Not coincidentally that answer is usually the one they formerly held when they played the authority game. Now, however, they are sophisticated enough to see that citing an authority doesn't end the argument. They've changed games, but they don't want to change answers.

Over time, though, a few will gradually realize that within limits you can impose criteria for judging answers. In the study of science or history, for example, there are rules for making interpretations and evaluations by which useful distinctions can be made between answers. This holds true for every academic discipline. Science has standards of evidence, literary studies demands that an interpretation emerge from a data set called the actual words of the text, and historians and social scientists have standards for evaluating the reliability of sources. These standards and rules are why academic disciplines are called disciplines. Learning the rules is even referred to as "mastering a discipline." Here students learns how to discipline themselves to think one way and not another. In short, they learn to play the game.

The brighter students will become very good "game players" indeed. They will say, "Hey, you want me to write a Neo-Historicist/Marxist-Feminist critique of Harry Potter? No problem, I'll have it to you by Friday." You have to be careful with these students because it is easy think they have had an intellectual breakthrough. They can make and defend arguments and that's great, but just because they can think within the rules of a game doesn't mean they have changed on a deeper level. Many have simply gone from saying all ideas are equal to all games are equal. They are still relativists at heart.

"Well," they will tell me, "Martin Luther King, Jr., was playing his little political game of non-violent resistance, and Machiavelli was playing his game of power politics. You can't really say one game is better than another. They are just different." At this point, making and defending arguments has become an intellectual trick, but it hasn't really changed the way students process and react to the world.

Yesterday, for example, I was using Machiavelli against The Apology. Anytime you teach The Prince students quickly see that it is a set of rules similar to those on TV's Survivor Island. They can very quickly become proficient at thinking within the rules of the Machiavelli Game, which often appeals to them because of its clarity and realism. But when I ask them to take moral ownership of that game as a marriage strategy or defend it as a form of friendship, they will just as quickly disown it. Moreover, they will often try to defend the idea that it is quite acceptable to play one ethical reasoning game at home and another on the job or in the political arena, a defense that can be made to crumble with some artfully applied Socratic pressure.

All thinking games, of course, come with advantages, disadvantages and moral implications. Utilitarian ethics is a wonderful game, but it can take you to some very odd moral positions over questions about torturing terrorist suspects. Similarly, always acting only on your rationally-arrived at convictions can often get you into real trouble with your fellow citizens (as Socrates discovered). Owning your game means being willing to live with the moral implications of that game. It's the mature realization that the games we play in the so-called Ivory Tower have very some "real world" consequences.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Grade Inflation Deflated

I recently read about a professor out east somewhere who gives every student two grades on assignments, papers, etc. The first grade indicates the professor's true evaluation (C= average, B= above average, and an A = outstanding). Then he issues a second grade that he calls the "ironic" grade. This is the mark he puts in the gradebook, and, eventually, the total of all ironic course grades is printed on the transcript. The actual grade is known only to the student and the professor.

His reasoning is that it makes no sense to honestly grade student work when none of his colleagues are willing to do so. All that happens is that students are punished for taking his class, so they quite reasonably decide to go elsewhere. At least with the actual/ironic method, students aren't deceived about their ability. Moreover, if the actual and ironic grade are both an "A", the student can really feel good about it.

Am I missing something, or is this idea oddly attractive?

Not fighting, but joining...

I've spent the past two semesters trying to get my first-year students to measure their success by something other than their grades.  ...