Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Essentials

The art of reading as of learning is this:
to retain the essential, to forget the non-essential.
—Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf, p. 14

Few people today would willingly agree with Hitler about anything. But when it comes to educational priorities, what should be taught and what should be cut, many people unwittingly share Hitler’s opinions about essentials and non-essentials.

The film October Sky (1999) portrayed the childhood of Homer Hickam, who grew up to become a scientist for NASA. Based on Hickam’s memoir, it relates his growing fascination with rocketry following the launch of Sputnik. His interest in outer space conflicted with the ideas of many of his educators. Living in a West Virginia town dominated by coal mining, few of his teachers wanted to encourage his “hobby.” The town’s chief industry was the coalmine, he was the son of a miner, and everyone in his position ended up working in the mine. Why should they teach him something he’ll never use? As educators, they only needed to instruct him in the essentials, namely those subjects that would make him a successful miner.

Before Brown v. The Topeka Board of Education the argument for segregation was based in part on similar reasoning. Since people thought African-Americans were congenitally predisposed for manual labor, they reasoned that they be taught in a different manner from Whites. Their education should consist solely of the essentials—practical information necessary for careers as laborers. For millennia, men used the same line of reasoning to give girls substandard educations or to deny them education entirely. Women were nothing more than baby-makers, so knowledge of reading and writing were inessential for them.

Sadly, the predominant educational philosophy in the United States still consists of variants on this argument: education is essentially about the skills necessary for an adult life, in particular job preparation. That’s it. Nothing else. Few people would admit to holding such a belief, but the next time there’s a budget crisis, see what gets cut as inessential. The budget priorities reflect the ideology that education consists primarily of job preparation. Nowadays education is no longer about creating new miners or manual laborers; but creating the next generation of mid-level managers is no less inhumane. It reduces people to their mere stations in life. Education in the United States is rarely about nourishing the individual.

There is an alternative to the reductive view of education. To express it, I want to refer to a biblical passage. The unnamed prostitute who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears and dried them with her hair is traditionally identified as Mary Magdalene. Prostitution was an abject situation, which brought with it a great deal of social disdain—she was just a whore! But Jesus brought her into his inner circle and after the resurrection he appeared first before her. This is a powerful statement. Jesus was saying, in effect, what you do—or did—does not define you. No human being is just something… just a prostitute… just a woman… just a miner… just an African-American… or just an employee. By treating Mary Magdalene as valuable, Jesus acknowledged that all human beings transcend their stations in life. There is an inner essence to people that cannot be constrained to one single socially determined circumstance. Whatever their status, they possess dignity, they have a story, and they hold a perspective that warrants consideration.

This is where the humanities re-enter the discussion. No one would argue against teaching the basics. But they are considered basics for a reason. Education is about developing the whole person, not simply her or his eventual job title. To do so, it must pose deep questions. It needs to reveal the great ideas of world culture, and transmit the joys of the aesthetic experiences of art and music. It also must challenge comfortable assumptions of life and the world, and thus demonstrate to the students that there are other possibilities to the social order and predominant teachings around them. Education should treat its students as individuals, and give flight to their souls.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Asinine Fever Epidemic

Right now there is great concern about swine flu. But our society also is plagued by an epidemic of asinine fever.

Toward the end of Carlo Collodi’s novel Pinocchio (1881), the puppet once again disobeys Geppetto. Instead of going to school as he’d promised, Pinocchio steals away to the Land of Games with his friend Lampwick. After five months of non-stop play, a terrible thing happens: Pinocchio and Lampwick grow asses’ ears. They’ve come down with asinine fever, and like all the other boys in the Land of Games, they completely transform into donkeys.

Collodi’s message is clear enough; those boys who ignore their studies are condemned to be asses. An ass, of course, symbolizes ignorance. In the class-structure of nineteenth-century Italy, however, it was also a social metaphor. When Italy was a predominantly agrarian society donkeys were beasts of burden. Collodi cautioned his young readers not to disregard their education, or else they’d spend their lives as menial laborers.

And in fact, that’s precisely what happens to Collodi’s Pinocchio. Eventually he’s sold to a circus, but when he breaks his leg, he suffers the fate of any working animal in the nineteenth century. His owner ties a rock around his neck and hurls him into the ocean. Fortunately for him, the fish eat the flesh off his skeleton, which consists of… a wooden puppet.

So Pinocchio reflected the realities of nineteenth-century Italian society. But is it still relevant in the twenty-first century? When Disney turned Collodi’s tale to a cartoon in 1939, one of the few scenes they kept was the Land of Games. Disney rendered it as an amusement park with roller coasters, carousels, and fun houses. Disney’s interpretation of the Land of Games is an indictment of the modern entertainment industry. Entertainment is synonymous with amusement, which is also synonymous with diversion. The etymologies of all the words convey the idea that entertainment is really a distraction. A distraction from what, we might ask.

Nowadays, entertainment is everywhere. But the entertainment industry is not about the real world, about hard choices and complexity. It holds a pacifying mirror up to its viewers, telling them that a simplistic understanding is all that’s necessary. Evildoers do evil because they’re evil; but not to worry because eventually the hero will dispatch them with a one-liner. The consumers of mass media entertainment delude themselves that they are knowledgeable of the world. The real result is a pseudo-sophistication built on trite aphorisms and wish fulfillment. It is, in short, a game. And its worldview has permeated even the news industry. TV journalists routinely speak in platitudes and simplified language. During the last presidential campaign, they chided Candidate Obama for his “nuanced” answers, forgetting that the world is, in fact, nuanced. The next time a shark attacks a swimmer, see how long it takes before the anchor describes the animal as a “mindless killing machine.” Do they even know that they are citing the movie Jaws? The institution designed to inform the citizenry has reduced itself to the intellectual level of summer blockbusters.

Yet diversion can take many forms. Nowadays people are more distracted than ever by electronic gadgetry. It seems that text messages, cell phones, Twittering and other social media are everywhere. On the surface it appears that people are continuously hard at work. But at least one recent study shows that people who “multitask” actually perform their activities worse than they believe. They’re not so much working—not in any real sense—as turning their attention away from their immediate circumstances. Other researchers recently demonstrated that people who compose text messages behind the wheel are as dangerous as drunk drivers. That study is disturbing for the safety of our roadways, of course. But it also suggests another troubling conclusion: doesn’t this mean that the people who spend a lot of time “multitasking” are living much of their lives as if drunk? Listen closely and you can hear the braying right now.

For decades the United States has been the economically dominant force in the world. But nothing lasts forever, and we are currently in the worst recession in decades. And what about Collodi’s Lampwick? What happened to him? Just before Pinocchio transforms into a boy, he resolves once and for all to work hard. He takes employment turning a mill to replace a dying donkey. Pinocchio goes to him and comforts him as he breathes his last. Lampwick, like all the other boys from the Land of Games, dies an ass.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

'Nuff Said

It is well known that Americans are among the least educated when it comes to foreign languages. According to one statistic, only about a quarter of all US citizens can speak a foreign language proficiently. There are many factors as to why that occurs, of course.

One unfortunate side effect of that low number is that many people actively disdain the study of foreign language. After all, world business is conducted in English, they say—why should I study their language? One of the basic assumptions against the study of foreign language is its impracticality. A small percentage of the population gets the opportunity to travel extensively to another country, so why should anyone else go to the trouble? One blogger in 2004 wrote: “The utility of having American children devoting years mastering a language other than English is rather dubious from any utilitarian standard I can think of.”

The futility of teaching foreign languages is summed up in another quote:

It is impossible to understand, for example, why millions of people in the course of the years must learn two or three foreign languages, only a fraction of which they can make use of later, and hence most of them forget entirely, for of a hundred thousand pupils who learn French for example barely two thousand will have a serious use of this knowledge later, while ninety-eight thousand in the whole further course of their life will not find themselves in a position to make practical use of what they once learned. They have in their youth, therefore, devoted thousands of hours to a subject which later is without value and meaning for them. And the objection that this material belongs to general education is unsound, since it could only be upheld if people retained all through their life what they had learned. So in reality, because of the two thousand people for whom the knowledge of this language is profitable, ninety-eight thousand must be tormented for nothing and made to sacrifice valuable time.

If you’re inclined to agree, you might want to learn the source of the quote, Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf (1923: p. 419-20). You might also reflect on the ultimate outcome of his disdain for the knowledge of languages and cultures other than his own.

‘Nuff said.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Pythagoras Lied

Probably the most important aspect to the sciences is quantification, that is, the ability to transform data into (and out of) numbers. What many scientists may not realize is the idea of quantification comes from the ancient philosopher Pythagoras. Pythagoras believed that numbers revealed the true nature of the cosmos. Given the prevalence of science in our culture, the notion of quantification is pervasive. We have become a Pythagorean society because virtually everything, it seems, can be turned into a number. A person does not need to employ good writing or clear reasoning, merely the cold, hard statistics to get something done. There is one simple problem with this perspective, however: Pythagoras lied.

Of course there are many areas that cannot really be quantified. One of them is the importance of the humanities. Oh sure, we could take a poll and ask people to rate the humanities, but that would only gauge public opinion, not true importance. We could assess earnings from the publishing companies, but that would rate sales. We could look at enrollment data from universities, but that would evaluate the interest of students. So how can we understand the true importance of the humanities?

One example of the importance of the humanities comes from Primo Levi. His famous memoir of the Nazi Holocaust, Se questo √® un uomo (“If this is a man”) was translated with the unfortunate English title Survival at Auschwitz. It is unfortunate because, as the original Italian suggests, he describes the horrors of “The Final Solution” as a process of dehumanization.

One episode is key to Levi’s memoir. Since he’d had training as a chemist, he worked in Auschwitz as a pharmacist (yes, Auschwitz had a pharmacy). At one point a French prisoner nicknamed Pikolo noticed he was Italian, and asked him about an episode from Dante’s Inferno. In a striking passage, Dante meets Ulysses in hell. Ulysses tells of his final voyage, during which he inspires his men with his oratorical skills. He tells his men that they have a duty to explore the world, reminding them that they were not born to live as animals. The parallels with Levi’s situation are striking: he too was in a type of hell, reduced to the level of beasts.

Ulysses’ speech is so famous that Italian school children learn to recite it from memory. But at that moment in the Death Camp, Levi could not remember it. And his failure to recall Dante’s verses caused him great anxiety. He spends the next couple of hours piecing together the portions he could remember. Imagine: Levi was in Auschwitz, with all its horrors and brutalities—a true hell on Earth if ever there was one—but for a short while he got caught up in the inability to recite Dante.

He was in Auschwitz, for crying out loud—why would he care about poetry? Simple: to remember Dante momentarily negated the Nazis’ dehumanization of him. Animals don’t have poetry or the arts, but people do. It was a means to reassert his almost-lost humanity. His inability to recite it at that moment elicited the doubt that perhaps the Nazis were right about him. Instead of taking place on a battlefield, his struggle took place in his memory, indeed within his very soul. To us now it seems strangely trivial, but to recite Dante in that context would be an act of rebellion.

Here, pay attention Pikolo. Open your ears and your mind, I need for you to understand:

“Consider your birth:
you were not born to live as brutes,
but to follow virtue and learning”

It was as if I’d heard it for the first time: like a trumpet blast, like the voice of God. For a moment I forgot who I am and where I am.


Here then is the failure of Pythagorean thought. How could someone quantify Dante in that moment for Primo Levi? At that instant, the great poet was a potent reminder that Levi was not a sub-human entity worthy only of death. Dante’s poetry was beyond any numerical value. And it still is. It always is. Levi’s adherence to Dante is dramatic given his inhumane circumstances, but throughout the world there are millions of similar stories like his when poetry makes a difference to someone.

Numbers can tell a lot about human conditions, but they say nothing about the human condition. On the contrary, they have a strange de-humanizing effect on the persons involved. Perhaps the most telling indictment of Pythagoras was uttered by another twentieth-century monster, Joseph Stalin, who proclaimed: “The death of one man is a tragedy, but the death of millions is a statistic.”

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Changing Lives

One of the difficulties for the humanities is that the benefits of other fields are so obvious. Engineers construct bridges and dams, pharmacists dispense medicines, and scientists make new discoveries. Business graduates receive substantial starting salaries. These are all tangible benefits. So what are the practical applications of the humanities? What benefits to society does the study of literature, the arts, history, and languages bring?

One clich√© about the humanities is that they change your life. And frankly, they do. Wrap yourself around a literary classic—really delve into it, so that its worldview becomes your own—and it will change you. Sometimes, that change will be subtle, and sometimes it will be a bolt from the blue.

Perhaps the oldest classic of the Western canon is Homer’s Iliad. The story begins with a dispute over the spoils of war: for complicated reasons, the king Agamemnon needs to return the slave Chryseis, part of his spoils, to the Trojans. Agamemnon refuses out of the desire not to be humiliated before his men—-a king, after all, should have the most spoils of all. When he relents, he summarily takes as recompense the slave of his most powerful warrior, Achilles. Achilles, now humiliated before his fellow Greeks, simply refuses to fight, and, to summarize the rest, the Greeks nearly lose the war.

So much has changed since Homer's time that it's tempting to see his story as irrelevant to 2009. Spoils of war and the heroic ethos of the classical world are entirely foreign nowadays.

But what hasn't changed are the desire to save face, and the feelings of humiliation when face is lost—both emotions born from the prideful embrace of one’s social status. And Homer illustrates how the inability to face those feelings head-on can cause one to make self-defeating choices.

Business schools and technical colleges teach vital new areas. But they don’t demand that their students change, that they question their most basic assumptions, or that they learn and really comprehend human motivations, particularly their own. So last November, as the automobile industry sought the financial support of the federal government, the otherwise bright CEOs of the three largest car manufacturers each flew to Washington DC in their private jets. Like Agamemnon, as captains of industry, they had to maintain their prestige in the face of adversity… and like Agamemnon’s refusal to cede Chryseis, it was precisely the wrong thing to do: they were publicly pilloried for it.

Similarly, after the banks got the largest bailout in US history, people were scandalized to find out that executives still received huge bonuses. Again, like Agamemnon, who took Achilles’ spoils to assert his sovereignty, they tried to reassert their supremacy, as if they had records of stellar performances and did not need to beg for bailout funds. With no reason for self-reflection, they, too, did precisely the wrong thing.

I like to think of the benefits of the humanities in the most un-human terms. Imagine a computer. You can put more information into it. You can update it. But at a certain point, there’s an upper limit on its performance. To get more out of it, it simply needs to be different. That's where the importance of "changing people's lives" becomes seriously relevant.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Humanities and Mass Media

“Newspeak was designed not to extend but to diminish the range of thought, and this purpose was indirectly assisted by cutting the choice of words down to a minimum.” —George Orwell, 1984



For at least a decade now, numerous humanists have decried the “crisis in the humanities.” To many people, the idea of a “crisis in the humanities” seems counter-intuitive. The entertainment industry earns greater profits and has a wider reach than perhaps ever before. How can there be a crisis?



But quantity, as we all know, is no reflection of quality. I can fill up on potato chips, but that doesn’t mean that I’ve had a complete meal. On a life-long diet only of potato chips, I’d become bloated and obese, but at the same time my body would be starving for many essential nutrients. In a sense, our mass media-dominated culture is itself on a diet of potato chips: temporarily sated, but not fed in any real way.

I’ll use myself as an example. I grew up on rock and roll music. One of my earliest memories is the cover of my brother’s Meet the Beatles album (I must have been about two). The sound of an electric guitar still gets my heart racing. But for almost a decade now, I’ve pretty much abandoned rock and roll music. Here’s why: rock and roll speaks to the desires and anxieties of youth. It has no application to my life now. Rock and roll all night? I’m 43-years old, married, with a 6-year old daughter. I’m asleep by 10:15pm. And party every day? I have a satisfying day job and responsibilities.



What am I supposed to get out of rock and roll anymore? What is a repeatedly divorced twenty-something going to tell me—who have been happily married for fifteen years—about love? What insights will I gain from a group of teenagers in the latest “boy band” about sex? They probably don’t even know what a clitoris is!



What I’ve said about rock songs can just as easily be applied to most mass media forms. I love spectacle as much as the next person, but a blockbuster about giant robots saving the planet has no relevance for my life. As George Lucas was completing his second Star Wars trilogy, he explained that he wanted to explain the origins of evil, of how Darth Vader became Darth Vader. The only lesson I learned was not to trust a Sith—ok, I can do that, but it’s not a message I can readily put to use. Page-turners are a good way to pass the time, but I already know that criminals deserve to be caught and punished. All these types of mass media are potato chips, which are fine now and then, but my soul needs a steak. I know I’m not alone in that hunger, either.



I began this essay with a quotation from George Orwell’s distopia 1984. In his novel, the totalitarian system deliberately reduces the number of words in order to eliminate the possibility of freethinking. In our mass media-saturated society, we are living an analogous situation. The number of words hasn’t gone down, but the number of authentic narratives has. The common references we can make to astute observations about people, society, the world—ourselves—are disappearing. We can pass the time watching computer graphics and hearing electronic sounds, but in the end they mean nothing. Human beings need meaning.