Tuesday, November 25, 2008

What's a Genius?

What is a good theory of genius? Are they born? Are they made? Are they products of their time and environment? To what can we attribute the appearance of people who affect thinking breakthroughs? Now the Greeks attributed genius to the muses. People were inspired in intellectual fields by forces external to them. Thus, Urania inspired astronomers, Terpsichore dancers, etc. This is in keeping with the Greek view that genius was not wholly a product of rational human control.

Lest we dismiss these Greeks, it's important to acknowledge that their ideas bear a strong resemblance to Freud's notions of unconscious drives. Freud put the driving forces inside us, but they operate just as irrationally and capriciously as the muses did. We are, so to speak, in their power when they grip us. In this view, genius is happenstance. Either the muses kiss you or they don't. Either your internal drives are sublimated into some obsession or they aren't.

In the Middle Ages innovation was rather non-scientific. Consider Dante, perhaps the greatest living mind in the year 1300. He held to the Aristotelian view that any object in motion must have a propelling force acting upon it. Planets in the sky, the moon, etc., must be acted upon by unseen forces (and not, as Newton later realized, because it is the universal tendency of objects in motion to stay in motion). The unseen force was wholly consonant with a God-centered worldview. So despite the fact that Dante's was a mind pre-eminent, he still deferred to Aristotle's commonsensical, albeit wrong, idea about motion. This seems to suggest that genius is somewhat time bound. Even great minds can't make breakthroughs if they are not living in a time when the prefatory groundwork has been properly laid.

To some extent this is borne out by the Copernican revolution. Ptolomey’s geo-centric universe wasn't all bad. It allowed astronomers to predict events in the heavens, but only by imagining a series of perfect spheres upon which celestial objects rotated. The problem was that the mathematics needed to make this system cohere with observed data had grown increasingly complex by the end of the 15th century. Astronomers had 80 some perfect spheres turning at varying rates, and every time they found something new in the sky they had to add another darned sphere. In short, the theory had reached a kind of terminal complexity, and it seemed unlikely to Copernicus that God would make such an unlovely universe. So data was piled on data until someone finally said, "Wait a minute. There's got to be a simpler explanation."

The point here is that shifts in thinking accrue; they just don't pop out from the psyche or Mount Olympus. To a degree, this is what Thomas Kuhn argued in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Paradigm shifts do not occur because old models stop working. Kuhn's still controversial post-modernist gloss was that science didn't really progress from inferior theories to superior ones. Instead, science changes when the questions scientists ask change (i.e., Copernicus stopped asking how the new data fit into Ptolomey’s model and started asking why the model was so complicated). All this suggests that there is a strong social-constructionist nature to science. Geniuses don't make breakthroughs; they just happen to be living when scientific questions are changing. They may be the first ones to ask the new question, but someone else would have if they hadn't.

But what of the individual genius? Does he or she not play a role? For the Romantics the answer was yes. They held that those creative souls who could free themselves from intellectual conformity were the articulators of ideas that were contained mutely in all human souls. For Emerson, Man-Thinking--his name for the ideal scholar--learned that "in going down into the secrets of his own mind he has descended into the secrets of all minds." The key is self-trust in one's own vision. The stormy genius is an iconoclast, a free-thinker, a rebel against all orthodoxies. He sees where others do not in his “daring sallies of the spirit.”

By the time you get to a modernist like Virginia Woolf, we are back to social construction, but not completely. In A Room of One's Own, Woolf argues that genius must be nurtured. She posits Judith Shakespeare, the fictional sister of the bard, and Woolf speculates on the fate of a woman who hoped to develop a Shakespearean-caliber genius in Elizabethan society. Of course such a female genius dies broken and impoverished. It's important to note that Woolf wasn't arguing that you could make geniuses with the right nurturing. Rather, she was saying that possessing even the greatest innate genius isn't enough. You have to have an environment conducive to its development.

A more recent theory builds on the Darwinian revolution. Frank Sulloway wrote a book a few years ago called Born to Rebel in which he argued that birth order played a role in making geniuses. Sulloway compiled a list of accomplished thinkers and "geniuses" in a wide range of areas, and he found that a statistically improbable percentage were the youngest child. His theory was that children compete for parental attention as a survival strategy. They are in effect organisms seeking to survive in an environment. The youngest children in this environment will quickly realize that many common attention-getting strategies have already been taken by older siblings. So they must to come up with something new. In this way, environment and survival instinct habituate the youngest born to think differently.

There are some caveats on Sulloway's theory. The children must be spaced no more than five years apart, and he doesn't explain why some older and middle children are geniuses as well. Still, it's an interesting idea. It causes me to laugh when I read Darwin's argument for doing away with primogeniture in The Descent of Man. Darwin, by the way, was the youngest son. My own hunch is that genius is a combination of personal qualities, inherited smarts, luck, and the right environment. A kid in Mongolia may be a tennis genius, but if there are no tennis courts in Ulan Bator, it's unlikely she will win Wimbledon.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Found Poetry

Sometimes when I’m bored I’ll scan the first line index of poetry anthologies to see if a few of the adjacent lines in the index actually rhyme or make a kind of bent sense. The following, then, are "found poems" from the first line index of the Oxford Anthology of English Literature:

A bloody and a sudden end,
A dead man,
A little black thing among the snow,
A man that had six mortal wounds,
a man,
A mighty change it is and ominous

Come down O’ maid, from yonder
mountain hieght,
Come to me in the silence of the night

Creation and Creator’s crowning good,
Creep into thy narrow bed,
Dark angel with thine aching lust

Deep in the shady sadness of a vale,
Do not go gently into that good night,
Does the eagle know what is in the pit?
Does the road wind uphill all the way?
Down wanton, down! Have you no shame?

I sought a theme and sought for it
in vain,
I strove with none, for none was worth
my strife,
I think continually of those who were
truly great

It is holy thing to see,
It is a beauteous evening calm and free

Much have I travelled in realms of
My first thought was, he lied in every

Softly, in the dusk, a woman is singing
to me,
Sole Positive of Night!
Sombre the night,
Some people admire the work of a fool

That’s my last Duchess on the wall,
The awful shadow of some unseen power,
The blessed damozel leaned out

The guns spell money’s ultimate reason,
The Hebrew nation did not write it

Well, so that is that. Now we must
dismantle the tree,
We’ll to the woods no more,
We’ve made a great mess of love

With blackest moss the flower pots,
With Donne, whose muse on dromedary

Yes! in the sea of life enisled,
Your arms will clasp the gathered grain!

Friday, November 21, 2008

The Cliff Notes Version of the The Complete Idiot's Manual to Bluffer's Guides

My use of the phrase "bluffer's guide" yesterday got me to thinking about all of those wonderful books that promise to make learning a breeze. Here it all is they say: ten thousand years of history, the central concepts of economics, the major theories of sociological analysis. Anyway, this phrase—a bluffer’s guide—has stuck in my head for the last twenty-four hours. Just what is a bluffer’s guide? Academics usually take a dim view of them and suggest that such books are little more than handy cheat sheets, tools useful for creating the false appearance that you have mastered a vast and complex body of knowledge when all you have done is gleaned a few relevant but superficial insights.

I will confess to resorting to Cliff Notes once (I too have sinned). We were assigned to read The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy for a Victorian literature course. I am no fan of Hardy's novels, all those characters relentlessly ground underfoot by indifferent, deterministic forces (I admire his poetry a great deal, however). Well, after several chapters of this bleak fatalism, I succumbed to temptation and bought the Cliff Notes version with its handy plot synopsis and overview of major characters and themes. The truth is I passed the exam on Hardy and my guilt faded with time. Even so, I have mixed feelings about the use of bluffer's guides.

One the one hand, a great deal of my knowledge outside of my discipline (and a bit inside) is entirely the result of bluffer’s guides. I love the things, can’t get enough of them. And yet when I think of how much I want to know and how little I do know, and when I think about how lazy I am… alas, a bluffer’s guide is as good as it is going to get. Am I ever going to get around to completely reading Condorcet, Comte, Hegel, or Bacon, let alone Marx or Cervantes? Fat chance. It’s a bluffer’s life for me.

Even so, a part of me still looks down on a thinker who reads widely rather than deeply, yet I also recognize myself as this person. I try to take comfort in Montaigne’s confession that he too was a great skimmer of books, or in Isiah Berlin’s remark that some minds are foxes and others hedgehogs, but I never stop longing to master something deeply, completely. And I never stop looking for good bluffer’s guides either.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Beautiful Babble

There are some subjects that continue to baffle me despite years of trying to understand them. Economics is one. On the basement book shelf at home there must be half-a-dozen well-thumbed bluffer's guides to economics, yet I still have only a slight grasp on the concept of a mortgage backed security. Nevertheless, I thought I would have another go at economics. My retirement accounts have been hemorrhaging cash and I haven't a clue why this is happening. So in the past week I've been reading about economics from the likes of Robert Heilbroner, Lester Thurow and Alan Blinder, but I'm still baffled.

So I gave up last night and returned to John Kenneth Galbraith's wonderful The Great Crash of 1929. I haven't a clue what Galbraith is talking about, but I sure love to read him. The man was such a wonderful prose stylist. Here are a few dollops:

Economics is a subject profoundly conducive to cliche, resonant with boredom. On few topics is an American audience so practiced in turning off its ears and minds. And none can say that the response is ill advised.

Faced with the choice between changing one's mind and proving that there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof.
I may not know what a debenture is, but I no longer care. I'm too busy admiring Galbraith's economy of phrase to worry much about his economics. Indeed, there are some people I read solely for their prose. One is M.F. K. Fisher, who penned a collection of essays entitled Consider the Oyster. I can't stand oysters so it's unlikely I will ever make any of the recipes Fisher recommends (or even suffer an oyster to cross my threshold), yet I have enjoyably read Consider the Oyster many times. Here is the opening of her essay Love and Death Among the Molluscs:

An oyster leads a dreadful but exciting life.

Indeed, his chance to live at all is slim, and if he should survive the arrows of his outrageous fortune and in the two weeks of his carefree youth find a smooth clean place to fix on, the years afterwards are full of stress, passion, and danger.

He--but why call him he, except for clarity? Almost any normal oyster never knows from one year to the next whether he is he or she, and may start at any moment, after the first year, to lay eggs where before he spent his sexual energies in being exceptionally masculine. If he is a she, her energies are equally feminine, so that in a single summer, if all goes well, and the temperature of the water is somewhere around or above seventy degrees, she may spawn several hundred million eggs, fifteen to one hundred million at a time, with commendable pride.

Look at how much dry factual information about an indecisively-sexed bivalve is packed into these paragraphs, yet I don't mind reading it because the voice that is speaking is engaging. The hesitations ("but why call him he...?"), the opinionated adverbs ("exceptionally masculine"), and the personifications ("commendable pride") all make an otherwise uninteresting subject, well, interesting.

If nothing else, it helps to take my mind off the diminishing prospects for an early retirement.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Oh Hell

In my far-seeing wisdom, I decided to introduce my Humanities students to medieval culture by taking them through hell. I can't say they are enjoying the experience. The Inferno, which once was standard-issue high school stuff, has become a tough slog for many students. They are defeated by its many references to classical and medieval figures, to its strange ordering of sin (suicide is worse than murder), and even by its status as a Christian poem. Dante's Christianity just doesn't look like their Christianity.

It's hard for them to wrap their minds around the idea of a single dominant, all or nothing view of faith. Christianity for them is more a vision of love, tolerance and a personal connection to God that helps them to negotiate life's difficulties. Ask them why they believe and they will use words like spiritual fulfillment or a deep feeling of being held in God's love. You certainly won't hear much talk about the fires of hell, but the very real possibility of roasting in hell was an important part of the medieval worldview.

My students sometimes accuse Dante of being intolerant. They argue that Christianity is a more accepting religion than the one portrayed in the Inferno. They even protest when they find that Dante has put the prophet Muhammad among the schismatics in the eighth circle of hell. So very un-PC! Many of them may secretly believe that theirs is the one true version of the faith. At the same time they feel it's extremely impolite to ever give voice to such thoughts.

They often recoil at the graphic depictions of torture in Dante's hell. Indeed, Dante's sinners are afflicted with ghastly punishments: thieves are endlessly consumed and excreted from hideous reptiles, flatterers are submerged in a river of excrement, liars rot forever in their own flesh (that is, when they aren't endlessly gnawing on one another with razor sharp teeth). Interestingly, most of Dante's tortures are physical. Perhaps this reflects the physical hardships of life in the late middle ages. Skip forward a few centuries and Milton's Satan will also be in hell, but his torture is primarily psychological. In any case, the nastiness of the punishments in hell just don't seem like something that would be sanctioned by the loving God they encountered in Sunday School.

Dante's hell is just too hellish for their tastes.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Just a Suggestion

Several years ago there was competing institution here in town that had a stupefyingly bad marketing slogan: "Earn your degree without changing your life." Of course I know what they meant. They had an evening/weekend accelerated program and wanted to reassure their target audience that returning to school was not going to disrupt their lifestyle. Nevertheless, I still recall looking at that slogan on billboards and thinking are they nuts? Who would ever go through the ritualized annoyance of earning a degree if their life was not changed by the experience?

We expect education to change people. The big question is what that change should be. For Stanley Fish, students should be changed by learning to think well in the evidence-based disciplines that comprise a traditional general education, and that's all that should happen (see I Can't Save the World... ). Any talk of engineering shifts in values or attitudes, of making them more tolerant, civically virtuous--what have you-- is preaching, not teaching. As I mentioned before, I find myself sympathetic to this view, but perhaps that's because I've seen my discipline abandon the idea of an aesthetic experience as an aesthetic experience. Ideologically-driven literature critics have done a lot of preaching over the past few decades, but with little result other than to demonstrate the hoary truth that clever folks can easily argue something away from its primary intelligibility.

Having said that, I can also see one compelling objection to Fish's preacher-free approach to higher education. Let's call it the Nussbaum/deBotton/Johnson argument. Okay, that's a mouthful so let's call it the "Just a Suggestion" argument. It goes something like this. Years ago I had to teach "Cultivating Humanity," a book by the classical scholar Martha Nussbaum. In it she laid out a case for liberal reform of higher education. Now Nussbaum values rigorous critical inquiry every bit as much as Fish, but she also values awakening in students a "narrative imagination," which she defines as a capacity for placing ourselves in the experience of others. Indeed, she argues imaginative literature has a unique capacity for stretching us beyond our own egoistic worldview. It may even trigger in us an empathy for people whose experiences are quite alien to our own. This empathy, or compassion if you prefer, may even affect how we behave toward one another by causing us to pause or have a deeper awareness of the "other" before we act, judge, or dismiss a person.

In a sense, Nussbaum is arguing that we need educated hearts as well as educated minds. And she asserts that fiction can be a tool for accomplishing this goal. Stories, especially when they take us far from our own experience, may be edifying exercises if they arouse our empathy. After all, would you call people well educated if they lacked the capacity to imagine themselves in someone else's perspective? (Isn't that also the definition of a sociopath?)

Now at a certain point Nussbaum has to deal with Fish's objection. There's just no guarantee that people will have their narrative imaginations awakened by reading literature. Let's face it: lots of people can read novels, watch movies, or read poetry without feeling a thing. I can point to dozens like this in my classes right now. So employing literature in an attempt to transform people is terribly inefficient. More often than not, it probably fails.

But here is where Nussbaum really sells the idea to me: just because there's no guarantee that this change will occur is no reason not to put that opportunity before people. And that is what Alain deBotton and others argue on behalf of the aesthetic experience. Beautiful works of art suggest the better selves we might like to be, but they are not in any way guarantors that we will become such people. Similarly, service learning experiences are no guarantee we will graduate more caring people committed to bettering their communities, but that in itself is no reason to dismiss service learning as an opportunity for change to occur.

Sometimes, too, I think of Hugh Johnson. He was the helicopter pilot in Vietnam who one day found himself hovering over the My Lai massacre. Looking down from above, Johnson saw American troops herding Vietnamese women and children into a ditch for execution. Without much reflection, he landed his helicopter and ordered his gunner to train a 50-caliber machine gun on the GIs. He then ordered them to stop and was even able to get some of the Vietnamese to safety. For this act, Johnson was ostracized by his fellow soldiers. He even received death threats and eventually had to leave the military earlier than he planned. Much later, however, he was given a medal for bravery and even lectured cadets at West Point about the rule of law in war.

Funny thing, though. Many people over the years asked Johnson why he did what he did. After all, others were there and did nothing. Perhaps if we knew what triggered Johnson's heroic response we could better train soldiers for these situations. For the most part, though, Johnson was unable to say why he acted as he did. Sometimes he would mumble something about having seen a film about the holocaust in high school and how what he saw from his helicopter looked a lot like that film. So he acted. Now I am not a betting man, but I'd say there is almost no chance that that high school history instructor had the intention of producing a Hugh Johnson when he showed that film. Truth be told, he was probably hung over and happy to get an easy day at work by slapping on a movie and snoozing in the back of a darkened classroom.

In the end, there is no surefire way to manufacture a Hugh Johnson, a Rosa Parks, a Ghandi, a Socrates. But that in itself is insufficient reason for not putting opportunities to become such people before our students. One might even say this is true for all education. There is no guarantee that any of it will ever help to accomplish much moral good. After all, the men who planned the holocaust had degrees from the finest universities in Europe.

So perhaps our educational competitor was onto something. It is possible to earn your degree without changing your life. But here's a suggestion: let's not advertise this fact to students. Rather, let's modestly and humbly suggest that change is something they just might want to consider.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Poetic Sticky Notes

One of the more interesting courses I took in grad school (if interesting is measured by the number of times I still think about the issues it raised) was a seminar on poetics. One evening, by way of introducing the difficulty of the subject, the professor asked us to come up with a definition that distinguished poetry from prose. We were given several minutes to reflect on an answer, and then we tested them in debate to see whether they held.

My definition was very reductive, yet I still think it got at something crucial. I argued that poetry was a structuring of language to make it memorable. I quickly had to add that this wasn’t a moral or aesthetic valuation (as in Matthew Arnold’s idea of the “best that has been thought and said”). I just meant that something was being done to the language to make it stick in the head: repetition, rhyme, meter, assonance, a striking turn of phrase, an evocation of an image, etc.

It seemed to me then—and seems to me still—that in poetry’s crudest form this is what it sets out to do. Being memorable, of course, had a practical function in preliterate cultures where a poem could only survive if it got stuck in someone’s head. But even after the invention of the printing press, “poetic stickiness” was still useful. Poems still had to compete for shelf space in readers’ heads. There is something of Harold Bloom in this idea—all that business of the anxiety of influence, of wanting to say something that boots out an earlier formulation of language.

But even if we dispense with Bloom’s ideas, it stands to reason that a poet wants his or her work to have sticking power, to leave an impression that is more than transitory. A novelist is perhaps less interested in the sticking power of any one sentence or set of sentences – not uninterested, just less interested. With novels, it’s the holistic or cumulative effect that matters. Try to recall a line of Henry James? Charlotte Bronte? Norman Mailer? Try to recall a line from any of the many novels, short stories, magazine articles or textbooks you have read.

I’ll bet that at best you can only recall a handful. And even then they are more likely to be famous first or last lines. I suspect, too, that a close examination of the lines that you do remember will show them to be borrowing mnemonic techniques from poetry. Take, for example, the only line I can recall from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness: “The horror! The horror!” It would not have stuck without the repetition. Look at the opening of A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best times. It was the worst of times.” There’s probably a fancy Latin of Greek word for the rhetorical device employed here, but it’s clear that the formal balance, repetition, and strategic contrasting make the line stick. On the other hand, you have to really work to get the first line of Pride and Prejudice just right, though it’s one of the more famous first lines in literature.

Now think of how many lines of poetry are pasted effortlessly into your brain. And I’m not talking Shakespeare here. Think song lyrics, which must be included under the definition I proposed. There they sit for years on end until an experience or a few bars of music brings them roiling to the fore. My grandfather can spout the doggerel he learned in grammar school eighty years ago, and even the most unlettered thug has a few lines of verse or song lyric rattling around in his brain. Every day four or five lines of verse pop up in my head, and in all kinds of circumstances. I’ll be shaving over the sink and think of the line from Prufrock about “pools that linger in drains.” I’ll listen to the news with its mindless yammering and think of Yeats’ Second Coming.

Okay, so now the objection: if a passage of prose can avail itself of these techniques – and I’ve already admitted as much—then isn’t it by definition poetry as well? Can’t a lawyer in summation make language memorable (“If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit”)? So must we regard these examples as poetry? If so, then my definition isn’t very defining. One response might be to argue that it’s a matter of degree. The examples cited above aren’t poetry, but they are leaning toward the poetic. In other words, prose works and orations may use mnemonic structuring devices which, in any case, aren’t exclusive to poetry. It’s just that poetry uses them more often and with a greater intensity and intentionality than other forms of literature.

So the distinction between poetry and prose is one of degree, not kind. But now comes the killing blow to my definition: “Degrees, eh? Okay, so how many degrees do you need to be a poem? Fifty-one? Three hundred and seventy nine?” I still haven’t demarcated the boundary between poetry and prose. All I’ve done is fuzz it up a bit. Still, I can’t help thinking that I am at least pointing in the right direction.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Finding the Words

Sometimes teaching is simply a matter of finding the right analogies. I recall years ago teaching a course on free expression and finding it difficult to get students to understand why the government could regulate the broadcast networks but not print publications. One night while explaining the Supreme Court's rationale (known as the "scarcity doctrine"), it suddenly occurred to me that the limited amount of usable waveband was not unlike the National Parks System.

"There's only so much room in Yellowstone," I explained, "and no one will benefit if we let anyone who wants to ride a dirt bike there." Okay, it wasn't a perfect analogy, but I never had trouble making that idea clear again.

So yesterday we were discussing the value of a historical perspective. We've been reading John Lewis Gaddis' The Landscape of History, in which he makes a compelling case for the value of a historical perspective. The students, however, don't like the book. Admittedly, it's a bit "inside baseball," but that's almost Gaddis' point. He argues history is as much a way of thinking about evidence as it is the evidence itself.

So I asked the students why they thought a historical perspective was worthwhile. The usual answers cropped up: so we can plan the future better, so we won't repeat past mistakes, so we can measure our progress... All of these, by the way, are not particularly popular justifications among historians.

Then we took up Gaddis' point that history is both oppressive and liberating. It is oppressive because any historical representation is unavoidably selective. It emphasizes some facts in history but leaves others out. It would be unusable if it didn't (like a map of Greenland that is the size of Greenland). This useful selectivity, however, cuts two ways. It makes history useful but not always in a good way. We can leave in Columbus' "discovery" of the Western Hemisphere but leave out that he and his Spanish successors worked the Tainos to death in a few short decades. The Tainos have been erased from existence and most history books (but you would be amazed how many Americans are proud that they can recall the names of the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria!).

So I mentioned that historical memory is a flashpoint in many places in the world. It's a crime to write about the Armenian genocide in Turkey, and Japanese school books often downplay the less savory aspects of Japan's wartime exploits. Even here at home, few of my students know much about the struggle for labor rights, or the Tuskegee experiments, or a host of other historical events that fail to appear in high school history books. All of this is to say nothing of the way various totalitarian regimes have manipulated history to garner support or gin up politically useful grievances.

Then a good analogy came to me. "All this is not unlike the way an abusive husband controls his spouse," I said. "He isolates her, controls the information she has access to, and he provides a historical framework in which the woman has to interpret her situation." Suddenly they got Gaddis' point about the potential of history to be oppressive. They also saw how important it was for the woman to have the ability to refashion her narrative.

The good news, of course, is that the very same tools used to create oppressive historical representations can be used create new ones that emphasize different facts and new information. Once upon a time we didn't think slave narratives were all that important. Now there is great excitement whenever one turns up because they give us greater insight into a part of the historical landscape that's become relevant and important to us.

Oppressive and liberating at the same time. Come to think of it, that's a pretty good description of education in general.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Playing to the Whistle

In basketball there is wonderful phrase that describes the end of a game whose outcome has already been determined. One team will have an insurmountable lead given the time left, but the players will remain on the floor making shots and chasing rebounds. This, in the parlance of basketball, is known as garbage time, a concept with an academic equivalent. There comes a moment in every semester when the outcome of the course is clear. The students are still handing things in, I'm still grading, but let's face it: it's garbage time. And, like the onset of the Christmas shopping season, garbage time seems to start earlier and earlier each year.

Resisting this inevitable slide into garbage time is my job description for the next few weeks. My increasingly beleaguered students have started to turn in work they know is substandard. I get response papers to readings that scarcely mention the reading and, indeed, could have been dashed off without once cracking the book's spine. By now, too, I am a little beleaguered myself. My comments are crankier. My exasperation shows, but also perhaps my affection.

It always surprises me how much I like my students after spending a semester pushing them, grumbling about them, scolding them, laughing with them and (inevitably) failing them in countless ways by not preparing well enough or finding teaching strategies that are more innovative, "hands-on," engaging, or whatever it is I am supposed to be doing as I teach the jumbled nonsense I feel is vital for them to know or reflect upon.

Just a few more weeks now and I can stop pushing them, stop being that "stinging horsefly" that Socrates says he was in The Apology, which we read a lifetime ago in the first week of September, back when the course was just setting out, back when I thought I would get it right this time. Well, I didn't, but it hasn't been a failure. At least not a total failure. In a few minutes I will walk out the door and into the classroom. I'll go back out there and fail some more because, just like the students, I have to play to the whistle.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

I Can't Save the World (so why ask me to?)

One of the new duties I've taken on this fall has been chairing a committee to revise the college's core requirements. This is in one sense a highly philosophical task. We have to ask ourselves what is it that college graduates should know and be able to do when they leave this place. And we can't answer this question without making some value-laden choices about what's worthwhile to know. On another level, however, revising the core has little to do with high-falutin' ideas about the nature of knowledge or what's worth knowing. It has to do with the practical realities of budgets, classroom availability, and--more to the point--the jumbled skein of vested departmental interests (How dare you reduce the foreign language requirement? That's my livelihood you're messing with, bub!).

And then there is the faculty's ideological and political commitments. Some faculty members believe we need to change the way our students feel as well as the way they think. Some say we must make them more tolerant and compassionate, or that we should affirm a particular stance on multiculturalism, tolerance, gender/racial/economic equity, or any number of other "isms." One school of thought is that higher learning ought to get into service learning -- that is, we ought to require that our students give something back to their community as a way of inculcating the value of civic virtue.

I've always been a little skeptical of service learning. It's not that I think people don't benefit from getting involved in the life of their communities. Emerson was right when he wrote in his American Scholar Address that "Life is our dictionary." He affirmed that action for the scholar was subordinate but essential. What he did not do is specify the nature of the action. He didn't demand that his ideal scholar right any wrongs in a certain fashion and with the "right" attitudes and values. That he left to the conscience of the individual.

So now along comes Stanley Fish with a new book: Save the World on Your Own Time. In it Fish decries faculty ideologues who think it is the mission of higher education to turn out more caring and compassionate citizens with commitments to certain values and attitudes. That, Fish argues, is not really our job. And even if it were, it's not one we can accomplish with anything approaching measurable efficiency. Whether people are civically virtuous or embrace multiculturalism or tolerance is in the end a matter of their moral character, not academic training.

The job of higher education, Fish argues, is to teach students to think and to introduce them to the disciplinary traditions that surround certain enduring intellectual fields of inquiry. He argues that we ought to take our political and ideological commitments out of the classroom and get back to doing our jobs. But someone is sure to object that everything is political, so you can't really get politics out of the academic enterprise. Nonsense, Fish responds. You simply stop asking how do we save the world and start asking more academic questions: is this true? What is the evidence for this? What are the major weaknesses of this argument? How well does this idea hang together? Anything can be academized, and then at 4:30 we can engage in whatever politics we want.

I'm sympathetic to Fish's argument. For the past 40 years my discipline (literature) has been rife with ideologues who see the teaching of literature as a venue for affecting political change or the creation of students with "awakened consciousness." I have come to suspect the usefulness of arguing politics with poetry – the smug two step of enclosing every act of reading in some narrow-minded “ism.” Why is it so hard to comprehend that analyzing and evaluating poetry is a really poor way of practicing politics? Oh, yes, dear yes, a poem can be political. No one is denying that. But is reading King Lear in a prosecutorial mouse hunt for misogyny a highly effective way to get students to revise their political attitudes about gender inequality or undo 30 centuries of patriarchal oppression?


Maybe what we should be doing is teaching people how to read critically, how to write well, how to make sound evidence-based arguments using the ideas they have encountered, and then leave it at that. After all, that's a lot. If you start adding to my duties that I must make students more caring, tolerant and civically virtuous--well, I'm not even sure this is do-able. Aristotle made it clear over 2,300 years ago that intellectual virtue can be taught, but moral virtue cannot. Perhaps changing people's moral character just isn't an academic's job. Maybe it's an extracurricular activity.

I have a sinking feeling, however, that I may be in a distinct minority on this issue.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Clicks and Whirs

A number of years ago I had a very strange dream in which my language gradually changed from English to porpoise. I knew what I was saying. It made perfect sense to me, but all my listeners heard were a baffling series of glottal clicks and whirs. This dream has become a personal metaphor for teaching. Indeed, I often stare out at the blank, wide-eyed faces of my students and think 'Oh dear, I'm doing it again. I'm speaking porpoise.'

I certainly felt that way yesterday in my Humanities course. We were just starting Dante's Inferno (Cantos I-IV), and I was asking them about the placement of certain figures in hell like the opportunists and virtuous pagans. I would ask a question and there would be an awkward silence that stretched for what seemed like 30-40 seconds. I know there are professors who will wait the students out, but I'm not one of them.

So I back up and come at the question again from a new angle. More silence. Now when I do this a few times and get nowhere, I usually just start talking. I know, I know, there's this whole school of thought about teaching with your mouth shut. I wish I could be that professor, but I can't. I blab. One student even wrote on my course evaluations that taking a class with me was like being locked in a room with a chatty maniac.

Anyway, when a class goes badly like yesterday's Humanities section, I become morose and think I'm just a lousy prof. It didn't help that yesterday's USA Today also included an article about how "unengaged" students are in college. According to the article, 25 percent of freshmen come to class without having completed the readings. Furthermore, the article quoted Alexander McCormick, the director of the National Survey of Student Engagement,

The purpose here is not to dump on faculty, but when a substantial chunk of students come to class unprepared, it suggests that they can get away with it.
In other words, it's probably my fault the students are unprepared. I haven't structured the course in such a way that they need to be prepared. Either that, or the course is so "unengaging" that they are not motivated to learn. About all I am doing is cornering them in my classroom and speaking porpoise for 16 weeks. Like I said, I get a bit morose when class does not go well.

Then last night I started to grade the latest batch of papers and the clouds began to part. They were much better than the first round of papers. Here are a few of the opening paragraphs:

According to the Greek philosopher Socrates, we must always act on convictions we have reasoned to be correct and we must never knowingly do evil. St. Augustine has different beliefs, however; he believes it may not be so simple... This paper will examine Augustine's understanding of how we may choose to do the wrong thing even when we know it is wrong.
And here's another

Petronius' Satyricon exposes a side of ancient Roman society that is neither prosperous or glamorous, but rather pathetic and greedy. Through this tale, Petronius reveals the Romans'... materialistic side, but the freed-slave Trimalchio's displays of unnecessary purchases and activities are not exclusive to the Roman era; these displays can be seen in modern day America.
Okay, we are not talking E.B. White here, but you really should have seen that first round of papers. These at least had clear theses, forecasting statements, a sense of organization, and better still they were using ancient texts to make arguments about contemporary society or the student's own experience. So my class may be unengaged and I may be speaking porpoise, but every now and then the students start to click and whir back (and I think to myself that I will keep doing this a bit longer).

Monday, November 10, 2008

Sound Stranger

The last time I was in New York, I attended a poetry reading in a tiny theatrical salon/living room. The first poet was a very effeminate gay man who wrote mostly about his coming out, the tensions with his parents and having sex with Jesus. The second poet was a self-proclaimed “feminist/black Irish/native New York/angry/ twice divorced mother of two” (she pronounced the slash between each adjective).

For the most part her poems concerned how she learned to stop hating men, the oppression of the Irish, and a verse letter to Jesus about her sex life. The last poet was also a gay man, but I don’t recall any of his poems. He read in a fast, clipped tone as if he were struggling to get as many of his poems read before a bell went off. And I don’t think he mentioned Jesus in any way. I don’t want to give the wrong impression. Much of what these poets had accomplished was notable. They could stud their works with striking images, and at least in case of the woman there were interesting organizational conceits.

Their work, however, got me thinking how completely odd it would have been to stand in their company and read a love poem, a poem that expressed the highest passion for another human being. I’m not saying poems that air complaints and regrets are suspect by nature; far from it. All I’m saying is that a love poem would have been so strange and wonderful in that wounded, aggrieved, angry room. No one believes in love any more, but no one has ceased longing to believe in it either.

And I was also struck by the inattention to sound in their poems. Their language lacked any sensuous playfulness with the words themselves. All of the weight was on the novelty or transgression of their subject matter and not on the novelty or transgression of how they said it. By way of explaining what I mean by playfulness, let me offer an example. Here are the first two stanzas of W. H. Auden’s “On This Island”:

Look, stranger, on this island now
The leaping light for your delight discovers,
Stand stable here
And silent be,
That through the channels of the ear
May wander like a river
The swaying sound of the sea.

Here at the small field’s ending pause
When the chalk wall falls to the foam and its tall ledges
Oppose the pluck
And knock of the tide
And the shingle scrambles after the suck-
ing surf,
And the gull lodges
A moment on its sheer side.

This is what I mean by playful. Is that “stranger” in the opening line a noun in a direct address? Or is it a command form comparative? It’s delightfully ambiguous, a delight that mirrors the poem’s demand that we look at these words, and then look again. The sense (like the “light” in the second line) leaps back and forth. And that second line indeed has two leaps of alliteration separated by the soft adjacent rhyming valley of “for your.” Moreover, each line in the poem ends where it needs to end for the meaning to be reinforced: “Stand stable here” stops the reader, as does the forced onomatopoetic caesuras after “pluck” and “tide,” not to mention the brilliant hyphenation of “suck-/ing.”

In the last stanza, too, the poem reaches beyond its playfulness, although it can be appreciated on this level alone (just read it aloud and feel how enjoyable it is to pronounce). Written on a vacation to Iceland, it evokes a moment struggling to be present to itself despite the urgency of politics in 1935: the rise of European fascism, and the tortured political correctness of Marxist polemics, which Auden was struggling to transcend. Here’s the final stanza:

Far off like floating seeds the ships
Diverge on urgent voluntary errands,
And the full view
Indeed may enter
And move in memory as now these clouds do,
That pass the harbour mirror
And all the summer through the water saunter.
Here lies the tension. This moment of appreciation, this island of playfulness in sense and sound, must reluctantly dissolve into an awareness of the fuller view, the view out of sight, where “seed/ships,” like the clouds, are mirrored on the harbour and thus dispel any vision that one can escape into an ahistorical delight in perception. That last off rhyme of “water saunter” almost holds the sound, conceit and image together. It shimmers like the waves and then dissolves.

Admittedly, the poets at the reading I attended in New York were not first tier poets, and it’s unfair to compare them with Auden. Nevertheless, these were poets who have been through countless workshops, who have published and won some minor recognition. Where was their sound sense? Where is mine? It is surprising how most amateur poems lack attention to language. More and more I’m coming to believe the ability to balance sound and sense is what separates a true poet from one who merely artfully arranges words on a page. Indeed, my own inability to simultaneously work these aspects of a poem both frustrates me and fills me with awe at those who can.

Friday, November 7, 2008

What Do We Owe?

In a compelling passage of Plato's Crito, Socrates engages in a hypothetical debate with the personified laws of Athens. This takes place as he is considering whether it is the right thing to escape from prison and flee his home city, which has now sentenced him to death. He imagines that the laws of Athens could speak, and they ask him a whether any organized society can exist if its citizens are free to pick without consequence which laws are to be obeyed?

Socrates answers that no organized society could operate on this basis and he agrees that the state must require its citizens to obey its laws, for the laws, if rightly enacted, exist to preserve all of the benefits that society provides. The laws next ask Socrates if he has ever turned down the benefits of his Athenian citizenship? After all, they point out that he was free to do so. Socrates, of course, admits that he has never turned down any benefits derived from his citizenship. But, he mockingly protests, the state has now done him a serious harm by sentencing him to death.

"Was this then the nature of our relationship, Socrates?" the laws ask.

In other words, Socrates has lived his entire life enjoying the benefits of his society, never once choosing to leave Athens or refusing its advantages. So can he now refuse to obey his society's laws simply because they no longer please him? He concludes that he cannot do this and still be guided his conviction that he must always act on what is right and never knowingly do wrong. To evade the law, he tells Crito, would be to wrong the state that has nurtured and protected him throughout his life. Indeed, he can hardly argue that he lacked an opportunity to speak and engage his fellow Athenians. He was given a trial under the laws and an opportunity to make his points. That he failed to convince the jury of his innocence does not remove his obligation to obey the law.

Although Socrates' is an extreme example of someone honoring his obligations, his actions do raise an important question: what do any of us owe our society in return for all of the benefits we have derived from it? Many times when I ask this question in my senior capstone, I am met with silence. For a lot of students it's the first time they have ever pondered the question.

Sometimes, too, a student will protest that he has paid for his benefits through taxes. I usually respond that it is true that we pay taxes for many of the services we enjoy, but no one's taxes alone could build an interstate system, provide rural electrification, run schools, provide fire protection, regulate the safe air travel, or assure a fair judicial system. Besides, these services and benefits are conferred to us not as a result of a tax payments, but because we are a citizen. The billionaire gets the same voting rights and fire protection as the transient who pays no taxes and lives under a bridge.

So what how do we define our obligation to society? Curiously, our society does not specify to a great degree what we owe in return for the benefits of citizenship. At the very least, it requires us to obey the law, but is simple obedience to the law enough to repay all what we have gained? What, after all, do you call someone who enjoys all the advantages of a relationship but begrudges even the most minimal of obligations? (At this point in class someone usually mutters "My ex-husband").

Thursday, November 6, 2008

The Tragedy of Hope

I have read some Freud, but lately I've gained a new appreciation of him. The following is from an essay by Mark Edmundson and appeared in the New York Times a while back:

Freud's implicit morality is counterintuitive. Though Freud acknowledged the uses of mild intoxicants like love and art, he was nonetheless extremely suspicious of any doctrine or activity that promised to unify the psyche — or to unify the nation, the people — without remainder and to do so forever. Freud believed that the inner tensions that we experience are by and large necessary tensions, not because they are so enjoyable in themselves — they are not — but because the alternatives to them are so much worse. For Freud, a healthy psyche is not always a psyche that feels good.

What I like about his view is the way it resonates with an older, classical view of human nature, one that takes a healthy, tragic view of life. The Greeks, who gave us tragic drama in the first place, got it. They knew that by arousing pity and fear, tragedy may put an audience in touch with some deeper and more emotionally complex understanding of the human experience.

Like tragic drama, Freud also sought to arouse in us an awareness of our conflicted inner nature. He agreed with the Greeks that we cannot wholly overcome the war between our deep-seated instincts for eros and thanatos. But, on the positive side, he did say that it’s better to know this about ourselves. It was his working premise that making the unconscious drives conscious is the only way we have of dealing with the problem of our nature. Is this a bleak view or just realistic?

A tragic view of human nature (and the deeper sensitivity and forgiveness that comes with it) is what's so missing from the American culture with all its implicit optimism and faith that we can somehow erase sadness, escape problems, and outrun the past-- to finally burst into what F.S. Scott Fitzgerald called "the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us."

Sigmund Freud, our nation turns its lonely eyes to you.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The End of Childhood?

The idea that kids are becoming adults more quickly today is an interesting one. The first time I encountered it was in an essay by the late Neil Postman, who argued that childhood was a result of the move to a print-oriented culture in the 18th Century. His argument went something like this: childhood is a social construct, not a biological one. Indeed, there was no notion of a prolonged childhood (say between birth and 17) until widespread printing made literacy a necessary social skill. Children were technically considered grown as soon as they acquired language skills. So the idea of childhood--of a special time in a person's life in which he or she is to be sheltered and nourished--is only about 200 years old.

The task of making children fully literate takes time, of course. One can speak effectively years before one can read well and write well. So when reading and writing became co-terminus with being a fully-formed person, childhood necessarily expanded, or, I should say, the idea of childhood took root. It was in the 18th century that first child-centered educational efforts took place.

In short, childhood was created to mirror the length of time it took to fully educate a young person. After all, we still tend to think of high school graduation as the formal entry into adulthood. But here's the thing: the time it takes to be conversant in our increasingly dominant audio-visual communications medium is far less than it is takes to become competently literate. (Thnk txt msging). Thus, as Postman predicted, childhood has begun to shrink. It may not vanish altogether, but our culture has already begun to reflect certain trends.

Today's preteens no longer are interested in dolls, toy cars, etc. They want Ipods, cell phones, computers and thus mimic the behavior of their elders. Toys-R-Us is going bankrupt, but video game manufacturers have target markets that are not so demographically distinct for children and adults (say between the ages of eight and 45 for basically the same product). Thus the entire social construct known as childhood may be undergoing a profound reshaping. I would say, at best, childhood ends at about 8 or 9 years of age now.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Uncommon Thinking

In 1947 George Orwell asked himself why he thought the Earth was round and found that he could not advance any reliable evidence to prove it. After all, that a ship's masts appear on an ocean horizon before its hull only demonstrates that the Earth is curved, not round. After considering other arguments for a round Earth, Orwell ruefully concluded, "It would seem that my reasons for thinking that the earth is round are rather precarious ones. [They] do not rest on reasoning or on experiment, but on authority."

Of course most of us today have seen photographs of the Earth from space, but a photograph is not necessarily proof (as anyone with a computer and Photo Shop software can attest). So, like Orwell, most of us might also be forced to admit that we believe in a round Earth because people have told us so. But if this is the case, then our belief in a spherical Earth possesses no more validity than the existence of the Tooth Fairy.

Enter the discipline of science, the value of which we begin discussing today in the senior capstone. Science, of course, involves a systematic gathering of information about the world and the organization of that information into testable laws and theories. To a scientific mind, reliable knowledge must be subject to some form of verification. In short, we can't say we know something unless we can show how it is known.

Unfortunately, when it comes to an understanding of science and the way science works, most of us fail and fail miserably. Poll after poll demonstrates this. Indeed, a 2005 New York Times article reported that most Americans do not know what molecules are. Less than a third know that DNA is a key to heredity, and only 10 percent know what radiation is. Even more astonishing is that 20 percent of Americans believe the sun rotates the Earth, an idea discarded more then 300 years ago. So what accounts for our poor understanding of science? Bad teaching? Dull students?

Perhaps it has something to do with the nature science itself. Perhaps human beings aren’t naturally wired to think scientifically. A lot of the time sound scientific thinking is often as far from common sense as you can get. Take Newtonian physics, for example. It deals with the laws of motion, which you would think obvious to everyone. After all, we observe objects in motion everyday. But there is little intuitive about Newtonian physics. Ask people what causes a ball to go up when you throw it, and most will say something like this: the force of your throw causes it to rise, and the ball falls once that force is exhausted.

This was Aristotle's idea 2,400 years ago. He, like most people, assumed the application of upward force on the ball caused it to rise. In fact, as Newton knew, the second the ball leaves your hand the only operating force is the downward force of gravity. There is no force operating to raise the ball. Objects in motion continue in motion unless acted upon by a retarding force. Without gravity, the ball would go forever. In this case, science is deeply counter-intuitive. Indeed, a great deal of scientific knowledge is very, very odd. It deals with vast macroscopic and microscopic scales; it requires complex mathematical modeling, and it eschews unreliable sense data. You might even say that training people to think scientifically is in effect training people to doubt their own common sense, and--let's face it-- most of us just aren't hardwired for that.

Monday, November 3, 2008

History and Diaries

I was rereading John Lewis GaddisThe Landscape of History over the weekend. It's one of the books we will be discussing this week in the senior capstone. It's an interesting little book, too, one that explores how historians operate. In one chapter, Gaddis gets into the question of a biographer’s methodology, suggesting that it involves wrestling with the issue of character.

Admittedly, character is an imprecise thing for historians. It requires, he argues, looking for “similarity across scale.” To illustrate his point he relates several historical facts about Stalin. Apparently he once crushed the skull of his pet parrot after it spit on the floor, and he had a barking dog killed when it bothered him (and had its owner exiled). He also drove his wife to suicide when she talked back to him, and he murdered Trotsky and his followers when they did the same. The difference here, of course, is scale. Some of these cruelties are small, and some—like liquidating the Kulaks—vast. But there is a similarity to all of these by which we can make provisional generalizations about Stalin’s character.

But how, Gaddis asks, do historical characters rise to the historian’s attention? In the case of Stalin it’s because his existence has left “surviving structures” of especial significance to us. In other words, historical figures matter if they create a new religion, institution, artwork, dynasty, or cause a tragedy whose implications extend across time. But there is another way characters might become significant. They might be relevant as people who survived and documented their lives. Gaddis notes that the diarist Samuel Pepys is today as important as the Court records during the Restoration.

Reading this made me think back to a question that has haunted me for years. Why have I kept a diary? And I have for over 20 years. The darned thing runs to nearly 1500 pages and it's the one thing I would hate to lose (I actually keep copies in separate locations!). I suppose on some level I have an unarticulated feeling that someone at some date in the future will take the time to read the silly thing and appreciate who I was. Indeed, I spent most of Christmas break a few years ago trying to put older portions of it into the computer, feeding sheet after sheet from 1998 into a scanner.


Isn’t it enough that I have read my own words and they meant something to me? Why is preserving the vain hope that someone will read and understand an important reason for keeping a diary? I can’t say. I only know that it is. Curiously, this absurd hope to be known is forever shadowed by a fear of erasure or indifference. Two literary images haunt me. The first comes from Giuseppi Lampedusa’s great (and only) novel The Leopard, which chronicles the decline of a 19th Century Sicilian noble family. In the last chapter nothing is left of the family but its dusty possessions, which are being casually disposed of by anonymous workmen. Onto the junk heap goes the stuffed remains of a once beloved dog. And that’s how it ends. Or as I once put it in a poem years ago:

Your furniture survives you,
A few phone mails, bills, debts, mementos,
Even your beard for a day or two.
These are leavings, your traces, your
All the things that you were but never took note of.
I suppose my kid will keep the diary around for a few years and maybe even try to read the thing a time or two, but in the end it will pass into other hands and someone eventually will toss it on the junk pile like Lampedusa's stuffed dog.

Now the other haunting literary image that comes to me is in the final scene of Hamlet. As he is dying, Hamlet dissuades Horatio from killing himself and urges his friend to tell his story. "He has my dying voice," Hamlet says of Fortinbras, Denmark's new leader. "So tell him the occurents, more or less, Which have solicited." And the play closes with Horatio exiting to tell Hamlet’s story, but it’s clear that Fortinbras is an unreflective, hot-headed thug who won't give two damns about Hamlet's struggle. The irony is almost too much. One of the Ghost's last lines in the play is "Do not forget," and Hamlet's last words are "the rest is silence."

Wow, Shakespeare's can be brutal on my solacing delusions.


One summer, long ago, during the Ford administration and the waning days of my parents' unhappy marriage, I laid each afternoon upon a...