Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Balloon Boy

The ability to think critically, to pose logical questions and challenge comfortable assumptions, is probably the single most important outcome of a university education. It is the very purpose for the paper-writing assignment that is the staple of almost every university class. Yet as exemplified by last week’s major news story, critical thinking is sorely lacking in American journalism.

By now the story is well known. A family in Colorado called police claiming that their 6-year old son was aboard a homemade balloon 10,000 feet in the sky. For hours, the news stations filmed the silvery balloon as it drifted. Eventually, it came down… and it turned out the son was hiding in the attic. Interviews and media frenzy followed, in which it came out that whole event was a hoax.

Perhaps the most important guide for critical thinking was the fourteenth-century William of Ockham. He developed a line of reasoning known as “Ockham’s razor”: when choosing among competing theories, the simplest is probably correct. So even before the hoax was revealed, what would “Ockham’s razor” have suggested? The family had spent weeks building a balloon, but after launch they couldn’t find the child: was he aboard the craft he’d accidentally launched, or somewhere on the ground? Of course, the simpler answer was the second—which turned out to be correct. But the media opted into the less logical, more sensational answer.

Assessment of a situation takes time, something the current 24-hour news cycle doesn’t allow for. In last week’s entry, I wrote about the need for time, and this story exemplifies my point perfectly. Undoubtedly the decision to air the story was instantaneous, but it takes time and calmness to assess the situation, and hence to formulate relevant questions: could a balloon of that size carry a child? Why didn’t the family have the safety features in place to prevent accidents (i.e., a fence, or a redundant launch protocol)? Is this really news? And perhaps most important, did the story even rise to the level of national importance?

The major news organizations spent several hours covering a lone balloon. What other information could have been provided in that amount of time? What other valid news stories could have been aired which might have served the populace better?

Uncritical judgments do no service to the society. What happened last week was a collective failure of critical thinking on the part of the media. Sadly, uncritical journalism has become the norm. Jon Stewart has made a career of skewering ill-informed newscasters who can’t discern fact from hyperbole.

Instruction in the humanities is an important aspect of learning critical thinking. Insightful readings can provide a model of rational analysis. Writing assignments teach students to express their opinions. More importantly, they remind students that valid opinions are based on facts, and facts can be ascertained only by asking the right questions. Over time students learn to challenge pat answers—the kind of pat answers comprising the anchors’ uninformed commentary as a balloon soared through the sky.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Post Script

In today's New York Times, Thomas Friedman writes about the need for new skills for workers. They can't just wait for new jobs to be "handed to them," but need to think creatively. Sound familiar? The humanities are about creativity, and viewing things in a new way.

Read Thomas Friedman's editorial here.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

It's About Time

It’s easy to blame other people. But what probably harms the humanities the most right now is not a decision that anyone made. No one made a case against the humanities that has now become widely accepted. No one unilaterally decided to stop teaching them, although budget priorities are often elsewhere. Instead, the damage to the humanities may have simply happened. Probably the most insidious harm afflicted against the humanities is the prevalent mode of life in the US.

In 2009, people are working ever increasing amounts of time. With the prevalence of technology, it is difficult to distinguish between time on the job from time off. If I’m at home with my family, but available to my employer via email and cell phone, am I truly at leisure? Worse, if I’m sitting at the dinner table, but my mind is on the day’s events, am I even present? Compounding that is the urban planning of North America, which throughout the twentieth-century was predicated on the idea of private ownership of cars. So when suburban sprawl is factored in, long commutes subtract further from private time. And none of this discussion includes the busyness of home life, such as household and family responsibilities, sleep, and time spent just plain vegging out.

The charge of elitism is often leveled against people who promote the arts. And elitism—let me stress—is absolutely unfounded. People of all walks of life can appreciate the humanities, and they do, from all backgrounds and differing levels of education (beyond the basic education which allows them to read and understand the works, of course—naturally, literary studies presuppose literacy).

But the one thing required of anyone who wants to enjoy the humanities is time. The humanities require time. People dabbling in other fields can read condensations. Amateur scientists can keep up to date by reading summaries of recent studies. A lot of non-fiction books can be understood just fine by reading reviews, sometimes only the dust jacket. In many areas, the gist of an idea is all that’s needed.

But the humanities are different. Reading a novel is absolutely not the same as reading its synopsis; Cliffs Notes can tell you what it’s about, but what it’s about isn’t really the point. What the arts provide is an experience. By reading a literary work you live the events. The same is true of viewing a work of art, or listening to a piece of music. To be sure, it is a vicarious experience, an experience of the imagination and not in the real world. But it is an experience nonetheless. To have the experience art provides requires time—free time.

It also requires brain power. Not necessarily smarts or an advanced degree, but the ability to process the artwork. A reader (or viewer, or listener) can set aside the time, but if she is stressed, exhausted, preoccupied, the experience will be diminished. Or ruined outright.

The humanities don’t only have a requirement, but they also make a demand. It’s not enough to read, the readers must find meaning in the works. Few stories are like Aesop’s fables, which end with a moral. Indeed, most great works of literature cannot be reduced to a one-dimensional meaning. But making sense of art is what makes art great. Again, this places an additional requirement of time and brain power.

The arts can adapt to today’s busy readership. They can be composed more simply, with more direct language, but that won’t fully address the problem. In many respects the problem is getting worse, as the notion of a “24/7” work schedule gains acceptance. As it grows, not only will the experience of the humanities be further degraded. Human experiences of all types will suffer.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Of Ducks and Women

The debates about the value of the humanities are as old as the humanities themselves. In his Republic (4th century BCE), Plato argues that in an ideal republic the arts would be banished. Part of his rationale is that they arouse the passions. The humanities play on people’s emotions leading them to behave in unwanted ways. This is, of course, an early iteration of the charge of the immorality of the arts. In the last several decades, the degeneracy of culture—and hence of the humanities—has been commonplace in political rhetoric in the United States.

An unusual defense of literature occurs in Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron (ca. 1351). The work, a classic of world literature, is comprised of one hundred tales. Boccaccio situates the tales within a frame story of ten youths who escaped the plague of 1348, and who amused each other by telling tales for ten days. But at the start of the fourth day, the author breaks into the narrative and offers a defense of his art.

Boccaccio claims that some people have read his tales and have accused him of immorality. The presence of the defense indicates that his tales probably circulated individually as he composed them. And in this instance the suggestion of immorality is not unfounded. The last tale of the third day consists of a particularly saucy story, involving an old hermit who teaches a young woman to serve God by “putting the devil into hell.” Ahem.

At the start of day four, Boccaccio does not argue about the charges against him, nor does he apologize for his bawdy tales. The defense of his art consists of yet another narrative—yes, the Decameron actually contains one hundred and one tales. He tells of Filippo Balducci, a saintly man who had decided to become a hermit after his wife’s death. Now advanced in years, he must journey into the city with his son, whom he had raised exclusively in a cavern. Balducci’s son is amazed at all the new sights of the city—the tall palaces, the fine clothing, and all the hustle and bustle—but when a group of young women passes by, the old man commands him to lower his eyes.

“They are evil,” he tells his son, who had never before seen a woman nor knew of their existence.

“Father, they are more beautiful than the angels painted in our cave. What are they?”

Trying to prevent any lustful thoughts in his son, he responds, “They are ducks.”

“Please father,” the son begs, “can’t we take home a duck?!”

Boccaccio then notes how powerful nature is. Even this young man, who was raised in a purely holy environment, immediately felt desire for opposite sex.

Boccaccio apparently had Plato in mind when he composed the story. Filippo does everything in his power to curb his son’s natural urges. He even struggles against language—the very stuff of literature—by deliberately using the wrong word. By not naming the women, he hopes to prevent sexual attraction. Yet he fails. With the tale Boccaccio rebuts the charge of that the humanities result in immoral acts. The passions exist naturally, whether people talk about them or not. To castigate, control, or even ban literature outright would have no effect on people’s actual behavior. The story of Filippo Balducci exemplifies how culture is powerless in the face of nature.

I am always reminded of this tale when I hear about “abstinence-only” sexual education. Much “abstinence-only” education is predicated on the idea of not teaching facts about birth control; if people don’t know about responsible sexuality, the thinking goes, they’ll be too scared to engage in any sexual behaviors at all. I have no problem with instructors preaching abstinence, but they have a duty to teach contraception and disease-prevention. Instead, the purveyors of “abstinence-only” are acting like Filippo Balducci, hoping to prevent sexual activity altogether by controlling the language about sex.

Numerous studies are now showing that “abstinence-only” is about as unsuccessful as Filippo Balducci. A recent study shows that teens who learn “abstinence-only” are just as likely to have intercourse, but less likely to take necessary precautions. As in the case of Filippo’s son, even someone entirely ignorant of the language of sex still has sexual impulses. The last time I checked, internal drives led teens to sexual exploration not literary works. Silence and misinformation will do nothing to stave off sexual activity. Call it a duck if you like or call it nothing at all, even go so far as declaring a “culture war,” but human nature is still in full force.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Book Report

Many people have been discussing the merits of the humanities. One recent noteworthy book is Anthony T. Kronman’s Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life (Yale, 2007). Kronman’s thesis is that academics need to get back to teaching the fundamental question of the humanities, the meaning of life. It’s not that great literary works provide an answer, but that they reformulate the question in different ways, thereby challenging facile, comfortable solutions.

Kronman believes that as universities focused more on research, humanists became absorbed with the minutiae of literary study. How the literary tradition enriches everyone’s lives is no longer taught in the humanistic classroom. Furthermore, literary research turned increasingly impenetrable, so that the reading public could no longer understand cutting-edge publications. A growing percentage of the population, therefore, ceased caring about the humanities.

Kronman’s ideas are worthy of consideration, and it is not my intention to argue directly against them. Instead, I want to illustrate the challenges inherent to Kronman’s thesis. Taken to its logical conclusion, literary classes should teach only those works which address the meaning of life, either directly or indirectly (or some variant on the question like “what is the life worth living?” or “how should people find meaning in their lives?”). Don’t get me wrong: many great works of literature touch on these philosophical questions, and challenge the readers’ own comfortable assumptions. These are works often at the heart of the canon and hence of the curriculum. But what about works that simply don’t rise to that level?

Many works of literature simply do not deal with the Truth—The Meaning of Life—or even raise questions that reflect on it. Rather, they deal with truths, finding meaning in particular experiences. Lyric poetry, for instance, often reveals the deeper significance in mundane experiences. The poetic techniques convey the everyday in almost mystical terms, thereby compelling the readers to see it in a new light.

Richard Wilbur’s poem, “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World” is a text that illustrates the profound meaning of a mundane experience. My brief synopsis won’t do it justice. It relates how the squeaky pulley of a laundry line awakened the poet. Half asleep, he sees that “the morning air is all awash with angels. / Some are in bed-sheets, some are in blouses, / some are in smocks: but truly there they are.” The poem is a masterpiece in describing the first moments of the morning. I’m just not sure that it deals with the Meaning of Life per se; discussing it in such a manner would be a stretch. But it beautifully encapsulates an experience most people have had. Before the responsibilities of the day come rushing in, the residual dream-state allows us to view our surroundings in different—special—ways.

Yet art cannot simply be treated as a delivery-device for philosophical questions. Aesthetics are not mere sugar coating, which will allow readers to swallow otherwise bitter discussions of the Truth. Wilbur’s poem doesn’t merely talk about a particular experience. By versifying it, Wilbur allows the readers to re-experience it themselves. Would anyone suggest that lyric poetry like this shouldn’t be taught?

Furthermore, even works that purport to convey the Truth can’t be reduced to just their message. In postwar Italy, when the Communists were highly popular, novelist Elio Vittorini publicly broke with the Italian Communist Party. The party leader, Palmiro Togliatti, insisted that the Italian Communists should follow the Stalinist model regarding artists; that is to say, writers should rigidly toe the party line and only convey orthodox communist ideology. Whatever we might think of Leninist-Marxism, it did provide its adherents with an answer to the question of the Meaning of Life. In his “Letter to Togliatti” (1947) Vittorini, an avowed socialist, asserted the autonomy of the arts. The role of the artist, he argued, was not merely to “play the fife for the revolution.” Following his example, numerous socialist artists demonstrated their independence from the party, giving rise to the Neorealist movement in the 1940s and 50s.

Vittorini and the Neorealists demonstrated that creativity couldn’t be constrained to the Truth or truths, even those espoused by its own authors. Something about creative fantasy makes art transcend its messages, even the most profound. Indeed, those historical periods and societies that enforced a particular form of the Truth—the Catholic Counterreformation, Soviet Socialism—rarely produced great works of art. In any of its numerous incarnations, agitprop makes claims to communicate the Truth, but it almost never amounts to more than its message. It is quickly forgotten and rightly so.

Kronman’s argument is subtler than I give it credit here. He is right to stress that literature teachers should raise relevant philosophical questions. That is part of what it means to be a good teacher. But no discussion of art should be reduced to any single dimension. Great art raises numerous questions, many of them worthy to be taught and studied.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Golden Rule

“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” —Matthew 7:12

This well-known teaching—to the point of being a cliché—encapsulates a deep truth that is central to the question of the humanities.

One of the difficulties facing the humanities is the medium itself. Literature is, by and large, fiction. That is to say, its authors employ imagination to describe the world. We can acknowledge, of course, that the authors’ imaginations are themselves grounded in observation and culturally relevant facts. Nevertheless in our science-dominated culture, many people look suspiciously at the accuracy of fantasy as a vehicle for the truth.

The subject of the biblical passage, compassion, is easily misunderstood. Put simply, compassion is not an emotion. The emotional response to suffering—that impulse to weep with someone else—is not compassion. It’s pity. Just like any other humane emotion there is nothing wrong with pity. But Jesus didn’t extol pity for a reason. Like any other emotion, it is a purely instinctive reaction. No thought goes into pity, so pity doesn’t transform the woman who experiences it. Pity doesn’t lead one to a deeper understanding of another person or his predicament.

So what is compassion? Jesus tells us to engage in an imaginative act: if I were that person, how would I want to be treated? What follows are the logical consequences of that presupposition. He tells us to inform our imagination with facts from our experiences, from what we know to be true of the world, and factual reasoning. Jesus commands people, in effect, to perform a type of thought experiment. They then should derive any ethical conclusions from that experiment.

Christianity is not unique in this regard. Most major religions have some teaching similar to the Golden Rule. Buddhism makes a central tenet of compassion. But the biblical passage not only promotes compassion, it also explains how to achieve it. Compassion is an act of imagination, which is informed by experience.

This leads back to the humanities. The arts are nothing if not thought experiments. What if…? Authors and artists employ fantasy to pose questions, and then use their knowledge of the world to follow those questions to certain conclusions. Attentive readers, furthermore, are led to see, at the very least, the point of view of someone in those positions. Readers are induced to experience compassion, and in the process they are transformed; they transcend—momentarily, subtly, but no less validly—their previous self-centered experience of the universe.