Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Luxury without fear, fun without suspicion

Last night my 10-year old son and I fell into a philosophical conversation about happiness.  He has a tendency to ask me questions involving carefully formulated distinctions or elaborate ranking schemes: Would I rather win the World Series or write a best seller?  Would I prefer the super powers of incredible strength or flying?  And would I still choose flying if it didn't come with super speed?  As an aside to our discussion of happiness, I happened to quote (or misquote more likely) Shopenhauer's definition of it as just the smallest amount of misery.

My son snorted and asked, "Who's this Schopenhauer guy?  He sounds interesting."  So I told him what I knew, which isn't much.  I have tried to read Schopenhauer before, but I have always been defeated by German idealism, all that labyrinthine complexity.  What I take from him is this:  he somewhat disagrees with Kant that all we can know of the world are the unavoidably imposed categorizations of our own mind.  He argues we do have a slight opening onto the world as it really is because a part of us belongs to that world: our body.

Of course our body is known by its representation in the mind, but it is also known by its nagging appetites for food, warmth, sex, etc. Each of us, then, experiences the dictates of an irrational will, one seemingly undaunted by its Kantian categorization as mere representation.  Indeed, we first know the world through hunger. As infants we scream when our wants aren’t instantly met, and although we domesticate our wills to a large degree, their hectoring presence never wholly leaves us.

Much of what Schopenhauer has to say about the will strikes me as intuitively on the mark. Many philosophers denigrate the will.  Reason, the alleged master of will, receives far more philosophical attention. But Schopenhauer acknowledges one definitive truth about human nature: our willful appetites will have their way.

They are unslakeable. No sooner do we satisfy one craving than another appears and another and another, ad infintitum. And what would be the result of satisfying all of our desires forever?  Just boredom, the most excruciating boredom we can possibly imagine.  I am reminded of something my brother once said. We were working downtown years ago and on the street we saw the most astonishingly beautiful young woman walk past. My brother laughed and said, “You know what’s funny? Somebody, somewhere, is bored with her.”

All this means, of course, that we can never be happy. We are designed by nature to tend toward eternal dissatisfaction.  Schopenhauer writes,
It would be better if there were nothing. Since there is more pain than pleasure on earth, every satisfaction is only transitory, creating new desires and new distresses, and the agony of the devoured animal is always far greater than the pleasure of the devourer.
My son was especially amused when I told him that Schopenhauer's lectures were scheduled opposite those of the more optimistic Hegel.  Consequently, hardly anybody attended Schopenhauer's gloomy presentations. 

Later we watched Terry Gilliam's Brazil, a film whose darkly pessimistic original ending was recut at the mandate of the studio.  In Gilliam's original version, the main character, Sam, experiences happiness and fulfillment only to awaken and find it's all been a delusion brought on by a torture-induced coma.  He only imagined his escape from the totalitarian regime.  The studio hated this ending and had it recut so that Sam really did escape with his lover into a beautiful countryside and happiness. 

So there it is.  The studio heads nailed it   Nobody goes to Schopenhauer's lectures.

Friday, May 17, 2013

The Sigmund S. Freud Middle School

Took my son to the middle school orientation last night.  We sat in a 1960s-era gymnasium and were welcomed into the Mustang family, or the Bulldog, Red Raider, or some other such jive mascot family.  Can't recall which.  Anyway, while I was sitting there listening to the well-meaning teachers and principals drone on about what an exciting time this would be for my middle schooler, I couldn't help thinking of my own spin in junior high (as it was called in those days).  It was about as miserable a period of my life as I can recall.

Middle school is where Freud's reality principle kicks in with a special malevolence and you realize that--despite what you may have previously heard--you really can't become whatever you want to be.  If you have always sucked at sports or math, it's very likely you will continue to suck at sports or math.  If you are shy or geeky, these traits will only be exacerbated by age.  Consequently, that future affair with a honey-haired Farah Fawcett isn't really in the cards for you.  You may as well accept that now.

Middle school is also when any remaining childhood neotony resolves itself into one's own unique catalog of physical demerits.  I actually remember a boy in junior high who was balding by the end of eighth grade.  It was as if some hormonal dial had been set too high and hurled him from middle school straight into middle age.

I've tried to prepare my son for this transition by telling him that almost everything he will experience over the next three years is nonsense and doesn't apply to the rest of his life.  I've even let him watch a few episodes of The Wonder Years and Freaks and Geeks on Netflix.  Unfortunately, despite their occasional cynicism and honesty, these shows usually wimp out with small, redemptive endings.  Even they can't fully face the reality principle of middle school: the pretence of unformed potential is over. 

What really haunts me is something my grandfather said near the end of his life.  His last few years were spent in an assisted living center.  One day while complaining about the place, he said it was just like having to go back to junior high after a lifetime of being an adult. 

Sent a chill, I can tell you that.

Monday, May 13, 2013

A Zen-Free Fly Fishing Post

Just returned from my annual end-of-the semester fly fishing trip: a week of sloshing about spring creeks, untangling wind knots and eating re-hydrated backpacker fare.  All in all, a good week: 17 Browns, nine Rainbows and two Brookies. 

Standing midstream last week, I even experienced the slight itch to write an essay connecting time on a trout stream to the Greek ideas of kairos and chronos.  You know, quantitative chronological time versus qualitative kairotic time, or that indeterminate moment in which something unique transpires that will not come about again.  The term kairos is actually related to the weather in ancient Greek, and--fittingly--my best day last week was assisted by the coming together of an overcast, drizzly morning, a box of pheasant-tail nymphs and a wide pool full of peckish Browns. 

But no.  No, no no.  I'm not going to do it.

A few years back I promised myself not to get too zen about fly fishing.  There's entirely too much of that kind of stuff already: The Dharma of the Dry Fly, The Samsara of Steelhead... 

What drivel.  Smarten it up however you like, in the end it's just a man standing up to his nads in a stream and yanking on a fish.  No satori there. 

Move along now.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Lesson Planning vs Less Planning

Below are excerpts from letters to the Sunday Times Magazine.  The previous week had featured an article inveighing against the idea that great teaching can result from some scripted formula:
I want my teacher/doctor to know professional “best practice” and to use it fluently and flexibly. Teaching is not merely art; it is science — just like medicine. We now possess a body of expert knowledge about how the mind works, how motivation works, how to design effective work and how to adjust learning in the face of results that I expect every teacher to know and use.... It is simply a false romantic notion to say we must choose between scripts and creativity in teaching.
And this
He walks in five minutes late to first period, half-shaven, cup of coffee in hand. He walks over to the white board, his stage, puts his coffee down, and looks into the eyes of every student. He’s not given the best students, and so his standardized test scores are average. Instead, they leave with something more; they leave inspired...  It’s [this] teacher who is worth the five-minute wait, the smell of coffee — and if anyone questions his half-shaven beard, he’ll learn a whole lot more about life.
Sadly, I am seldom the first kind of teacher described above. I scribble lesson plans on cocktail napkins or scraps of paper during my drive in to work.  I find old ones on the fly leafs of paperbacks or scrawled on discarded post-it notes crumpled up in my desk.  Certainly I have some grand strategic notion of where I'm going, and I like to think I've intuited some of that "body of expert knowledge" over the years.  But, frankly, I'm just making it up on most days.  My shameful secret is that I far too often pull my day-to-day approach out of my (well, let's just say thin air). 

A lot of the time it works.  Or maybe it's better to say it works like a slot machine, paying off just enough to keep me pulling the improvisational handle.   I keep telling myself I need to get serious about lesson planning, need to set daily learning objectives that fit seamlessly into some well-conceived, over-arching course plan, but I also know myself well enough to know that this is never going to happen. 

And I am certainly not the second type of teacher described above, which is simply a Hollywood cliche.   The truth is I'm a lousy planner, but I do have a plan.  I'm good at strategy, weak on tactics.  For better or for worse, this is the educator I am.  Some days I shine, some I stink it up.

I was reminded by a colleague the other day of a quote from the movie Shakespeare in Love.  It's an inexcusable and no doubt overly-romantic way to describe my lamentable approach to teaching and learning, but it sure feels accurate.  In the scene, the Globe Theater's Philip Henslowe explains to one of his creditors how the theater business really works:

Henslowe: Mr. Fennyman, allow me to explain about the theater business. The natural condition is one of insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster.

Hugh Fennyman: So what do we do?

Henslowe: Nothing. Strangely enough, it all turns out well.

Fennyman: How?

Henslowe: I don't know. It's a mystery.

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.  ...