Technology for teaching is a big deal now; the U of Minnesota collects about a $100 per undergrad each semester for educational technology, and lots of parts of the U are working on clever ways to spend the money. Lots of this quite properly passes the Philosophy Department by, since philosophy's mainstays have been conversations and essays, and the good thinking that's happening in philosophy teaching is largely about: better conversations and better essays.
Nevertheless, there's a worry -- an unfortunately nebulous worry, in two parts. Part one: some new technology may make enough teaching difference that it will separate the departments that matter from the the departments that just think they matter. So far, nothing has made that kind of difference -- but it can't be ruled out. Part two: some new technology will make enough difference in the common context of discussion that only those who take account of that technology will count. Google has maybe come closest to making that difference, so far. But the millenium is young.
Today's Strib reported on a $100 million patent judgment against Medtronic in favor of a 55 year old inventor with hundreds of patents in the area of solving back problems. The issues were complicated, and surely Medtronic has something to say about why it proceeded as it did, but the striking part was the inventor saying that he would not return to inventing again, that the law suit had taken him out of the loop for too long. It struck me that this was the stuff of Greek tragedy: nobody won this one. Medtronic lost money, but also lost the future productivity of somebody really exceptional. The aging population lost who knows what help with back pain. And the inventor, likely, lost the work he really enjoyed. And everybody in the scenario, the lawyers, the executives, the inventor -- was behaving reasonably on some standard, but they couldn't see the trainwreck coming. We don't want to lose this notion of trainwrecks, in all the talk about responsibility and obligation and loyalty -- all of these particular moral pulls. We have to hold on to the very strong moral imperative to avoid, whatever else we do, the result that nobody wants.
"Good drawings have been produced by many men and women of talent, but, as in the case of author, poet, musician, or orator, only a genius can produce a great work of art of any kind, a great drawing which, in addition to skillful handling, instantly brings to us the thought, the emotion of the artist at the time of creation." The Pocket Book of Great Drawings by Paul Sachs.
We lack a firm tradition of sketching in philosophy, though surely there are examples in the work of the Pre-Socratics, of Nietzsche, of Kierkegaard, of Wittgenstein. Philosophers habitually produce tomes, extended treatments, and it is natural to think that brief remarks are preparatory to longer remarks. But that is true without any prejudice to brief remarks, and brief remarks, brief responses, may have their own kind of philosophic excellence, continuous with the sorts of achievement we aspire to in conversation, where droning on is strictly prohibited.
This possibility of identifying and clarifying a concise philosophic literature attracts me to blogs. It is liberating to find a way to speak briefly about a lot of different things -- and them be done with them for awhile.
I read the other day that police officers, including some with security expertise, are being called up for National Guard duty in Iraq. It puts me in mind of an old Republican campaign spot:
There's a bear in woods.
Surely the bear is mean.
Likely the bear isn't very bright.
Doesn't it make sense to keep an eye on the bear?
Does it really make sense to send our bear watchers off to a place where there are many mean bears, none of whom is likely to come into our woods?
Joan of Arcadia, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Veronica Mars, Tru, Jaye Tyler from Wonderfalls -- there are lots of good heroines being invented these days, heroines who are part savior. Bogart used to play those roles: the one who knew what was going on, who could sometimes re-arrange necessity a little bit. When people feel powerless, the temptation of fiction-makers is to produce superheroes: folks for whom it always turns out right, by force of fist. Buffy is in that tradition a bit, except she has the good sense to save violence for dead things that are pretending to be alive. But the other heroines know that the structures of reality have to be nudged, teased, cajoled into shifting just a little. This is pretty healthy stuff. Compare Rockford and Magnum PI.
"If there were nothing new to be done, would human intellect cease to be necessary? Would it be a reason why those who do the old things should forget why they are done and do them like cattle, not like human beings. There is only too great a tendency in the best beliefs and practices to degenerate into the mechanical; and unless there were a succession of persons whose ever-recurring originality prevents the grounds of these beliefs and practices from becoming merely traditional, such dead matter would not resist the smallest shock from anything really alive...." John Stuart Mill, "Of Individuality," in On Liberty, page 129 in the Pelican Classics edition.
Back in the old days, knowing names was power. “Keep your true name secret, so the witches won’t conjure with it.” Magic was knowing formulas, incantations. We’re back to the old days, with Google. All you need is the right name, the right search string, to unlock great masses of information and insight. People who bother to carry the whole weight of information around with them are overloaded. “He’s trying to be a hard drive; he will fail.” The new scholarly mind is emerging: a spiderweb of hunches and names, holding together the known universe in a particular way. (And a new communication is emerging too: with a responsive database to fill things out, a lifework could be written on a cookie fortune or a tombstone.) I hope we don’t have an electro-magnetic pulse anytime soon; I’d like to see where this line of development leads.
Mary Rose teaches English at the University of Saint Thomas in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Her conversation is heaven; you never know what she's going to say, and yet it isn't -- insane. She makes perverse sense.
The Fall 2004 Saint Thomas magazine interviewed her. Two bits stood out:
"The only spiritual vision we have any business fussing over is whether our students find out what they need."
"It is important to hold yourself as a teacher and your students to very high standards. Teach things that are extremely difficult, and set up a pedagogy to allow every student to come to terms with that difficulty."
I hang around with educators who talk about changing the world, and one way I think we might do it is finding Tolstoy -- that is, finding a person of immense capacity and appetite and helping that person to hook up with projects worthy of his or her talent, before the lesser projects eat him or her alive. Educating everybody is important, but finding Tolstoy might just close the hole in the ozone layer before the coeds of the world cancerize their navels.
There is a way to do it. Hypothesis: interesting people in the present are interested in interesting people from the past. If one had a list of all the interesting people who ever lived, one would have a perfect net to catch other interesting people, because one could simply go looking for who's thinking about the interesting people. And there are formulas for finding some interesting people, especially a couple of generations back: they are often just off to the side of famous people, slightly in their shadow (Benjamin Rush/John Adams?, Tesla/Edison?); they are people that inspire astonishing and long term devotion for reasons that nobody can quite pin down (Hamann?). And they are often interested in too many things to be able to package and market themselves very well -- or they burn out before they can get decent recognition (Simone Weil?). Also, they successfully protect their time and their privacy (Siddis?).
Of course, this strategy starts making sense only when people begin sharing their interests with the world over blogs and discussion groups and all sorts of other searchable entities. But most anybody interesting will be lured into doing that, these days.
Cancer researchers train dogs to sniff out cancer signs in urine. Dogs agree with the cancer tests 41% of the time. But, according to today's Strib, on one occasion all the dogs agreed that somebody's urine was bad, though the tests were negative. Scientists re-did the tests, and found cancer. So, for the most part, you use the lab tests to evaluate the dogs' reliability: if the dogs agree with the lab, the dogs are detecting cancer. But, once the dogs have been shown to have some promise, you can also use the dogs to second guess the lab tests -- and you can use the consensus of dogs as a different kind of marker than the judgment of a single dog. So there is no one platform of utter certainty on which to stand, and yet we can get better at diagnosing cancer. Welcome to the grown up world of "epistemology." (By the way, this doesn't work just with dogs.)
I admire McCullough's biography of John Adams to distraction. I want to give it to everybody. Here's a bit from the last page, about Adams' final take on the world:
"Human nature had not changed, however, for all the improvements. Nor would it, he was sure. Nor did he love life any the less for its pain and terrible uncertainties. He remained as he had been, clear-eyed about the paradoxes of life and his own nature. Once, in a letter to his old friend Francis van der Kemp, he had written, "Griefs upon griefs. Disappointments upon disappointments. What then? This is a gay, merry world notwithstanding."
Adams' final word on life puts me in mind of the story of Naaman, another great man with many griefs and disappointments. I think that quite a few stories from different layers of the Bible make the point about this being a gay, merry world -- only not when read in Charlton Heston's voice. I put emphasis on some lines that seem to me written for Whoopee Goldberg or Ellen DeGeneres.
Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram, was a great man and in high favor with his master, because by him the LORD had given victory to Aram. The man, though a mighty warrior, suffered from leprosy. Now the Arameans on one of their raids had taken a young girl captive from the land of Israel, and she served Naaman's wife. She said to her mistress, "If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy." So Naaman went in and told his lord just what the girl from the land of Israel had said. And the king of Aram said, "Go then, and I will send along a letter to the king of Israel."
He went, taking with him ten talents of silver, six thousand shekels of gold, and ten sets of garments. He brought the letter to the king of Israel, which read, "When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you my servant Naaman, that you may cure him of his leprosy." When the king of Israel read the letter, he tore his clothes and said, "Am I God, to give death or life, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy? Just look and see how he is trying to pick a quarrel with me."
But when Elisha the man of God heard that the king of Israel had torn his clothes, he sent a message to the king, "Why have you torn your clothes? Let him come to me, that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel." So Naaman came with his horses and chariots, and halted at the entrance of Elisha's house. Elisha sent a messenger to him, saying, "Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and your flesh shall be restored and you shall be clean." But Naaman became angry and went away, saying, "I thought that for me he would surely come out, and stand and call on the name of the LORD his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy! Are not Abanag and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them, and be clean?" He turned and went away in a rage. But his servants approached and said to him, "Father, if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it? How much more, when all he said to you was, 'Wash, and be clean'?" So he went down and immersed himself seven times in the Jordan, according to the word of the man of God; his flesh was restored like the flesh of a young boy, and he was clean. 2 Kings 5
I used to fantasize that someday electronic technology would allow the big thinking tasks to be shared by lots of people. Every public official would have an intelligent auxiliary, hundreds of people devoting a few minutes a day to thinking about the big issues coming up, breaking them down into bite sized chunks for processing.
Blogs have apparently made something like this happen. In today's Strib, a piece by Bob Van Sternberg quotes Henry Farrell, co-author of "The Power and Politics of Blogs," on the CBS memo story, "This was a story tailor-made for bloggers. They're not investigative reporters and they don't have the resources of the media. But there are lots of talented people out there who can work for 20 minutes. It was distributed intelligence in which a story can be unpacked into thousands of little bits." Van Sternberg goes on: "What ultimately caused (the memo story) to crumble were the efforts of thousands of bloggers familiar wth typewriter technology, typographical minutae, and military paperwork procedures."
I have hopes, on good days, that the notion of "distributed intelligence" may become as important to political life as "representative government" or "freedom of speech." If we could found democracy widespread involvement of diverse intelligences rather than on an agglomeration of diverse interests, we might have some chance of solving grown-up problems.
Yesterday's Strib announced a newspaper promotion: special $1 editions of the paper were being sold by volunteers, with money going to help children with serious medical needs. It seemed like an admirable enough promotion, in its way. But I was imagining coming into a rural police station and saying: "I saw a bad accident on one of your little roads. The husband and wife are hurt pretty bad, slowly bleeding away. The kids, two toddlers, are ok, but they are wandering around, and, well, there are swamps nearby. But if you buy my "Be Ethical" button for just two dollars, I'll tell you the first letter of the name of the road where you can find them. I also have coffee cups, t-shirts, lawn chairs...."
What's the difference between moral seriousness and just fooling around?
In his biography, John Adams, David McCullough quotes Adams explaining how he could be on such good terms with Thomas Jefferson, after all of Jefferson's lies and betrayals:
" I do not believe that Mr. Jefferson ever hated me. On the contrary, I believe he always like me; but he detested Hamilton and my whole administration. Then he wished to be President of the United States, and I stood in his way. So he did everything that he could do to pull me down. But if I should quarrel with him for that, I might quarrel with every man I have had anything to do with in life. This is human nature.... I forgive all my enemies and hope they may find mercy in Heaven. Mr. Jefferson and I have grown old and retired from public life. So we are upon our ancient terms of goodwill." (632)
The Adams-Jefferson reconciliation is the only reconciliation that figures in the short version of American history, the one people actually know. It became an example of "one of the things that can happen between people"; it entered reconciliation into the American toolkit of possibilities.
I am tempted to recommend the McCullough's biography as background reading for every ethics class in America. One can say: this is one way a life can go right, through luck and effort.
Annie Dillard recounts a thought she had, after beginning to work with Kimon Nicolaides' book The Natural Way to Draw: “ One thing struck me as odd and interesting. A gesture drawing took forty five seconds; a Sustained Study took all morning. From any still-life arrangement or model’s pose, the artist could produce either a short study or a long one. Evidently, a given object took no particular amount of time to draw; instead the artist took the time, or didn’t take it, at pleasure. And, similarly, things themselves possessed no fixed and intrinsic amount of interest; instead things were interesting as long as you had attention to give them. How long does it take to draw a baseball mitt? As much time as you care to give it. Not an infinite amount of time, but more time than you first imagined. For many days, so long as you want to keep drawing that mitt, and studying that mitt, there will always be a new and finer layer of distinctions to draw out and lay in. Your attention discovers – seems thereby to produce – an array of interesting features in any object, like a lamp. An American Childhood, page 79.
I want to juxtapose this thought with a remark that strikes me as careless, from a piece by Gardiner Harris (“FDA Acknowledges Antidepressants Can Make Kids Suicidal”) of the New York Times, reprinted in the Strib on September 14, 2004: “The risk of suicide among patients given the medication is very small. If 100 children and teenagers are given anti-depressants, two or three will become suicidal who otherwise would not have, had they been given placebos, agency officials said. None of the children in the trials committed suicide, but some thought about or attempted suicide, researchers found.”
Let’s just give this bit of prose the attention Annie gave to her baseball mitt. Depressed teens, teens already prone to suicide, are given a medication and the researchers find that 2 or 3 out of a hundred move in the direction of suicide, who likely would not have moved in that direction without the medication. Is it interesting that none of the 2 or 3 succeed? Not particularly: the study would be monitoring people pretty closely. Somebody’s career ends if kids actually kill themselves in the study. Is 2 or 3 out of a hundred a small number? I should think the CIA would worry plenty, if an assassination strategy were projected to be successful 2 or 3 times out of a hundred. If 100,000 kids are taking this medication, that’s 1000 kids moving in the direction of suicide, without the helpful supervision of a monitoring study. The whole picture is complicated by the fact that this medication is supposed to, among other things, relieve depression and prevent suicide. Are there some figures about the effect of untreated depression in adolescents, to suggest that the net effect of anti-depressant use is positive?
Journalism had better be a meditative discipline, like drawing a baseball glove, or people get hurt.
"Just as God, being outside the universe, is at the same time the center, so each man imagines he is situated in the center of the world. The illusion of perspective places him at the center of space; an illusion of the same kind falsifies his idea of time; and yet another kindred illusion arranges a whole hierarchy of values around him. This illusion is extended even to our sense of existence, on account of the intimate connection between our sense of value and our sense of being; being seems to us less and less concentrated the farther it is removed from us.
We relegate the spatial form of this illusion to the place where it belongs, the realm of the imagination. We are obliged to do so; otherwise we should not perceive a single object; we should not even be able to direct ourselves enough to take a single step consciously. God thus provides us with a model of the operation that should transform all our soul. In the same way that in our infancy we learn to control and check this illusion in our sense of space, we should control and check it in our sense of time, values, and being. Otherwise from every point of view except that of space we shall be incapable of discerning a single object or directing a single step." From "Forms of the Implict Love of God" by Simone Weil.
Toynbee's A Study of History is this amazing attempt to understand many different cultural actions as attempted solutions to big, general problems. The actors on his stage are ideas and questions. Here's a sample:
"The social problem that awaits the creator when he returns from his withdrawal into a renewed communion with the mass of his fellows is the problem of raising the average level of a number of ordinary human souls to the higher level that has been attained by the creator himself; and as soon as he grapples with this task, he is confronted with the fact that most of the rank and file are unable to live at this higher level with all their hearts and wills and souls and strength. In his situation he may be tempted to try a short cut and resort to the device of raising some single faculty to the higher level without bothering about the whole personality. This means, ex hypothesi, the forcing of a human being into a lop-sided development. Such results are most easily obtainable on the plane of a mechanical technique, since, of all the elements in a culture, its mechanical aptitudes are easiest to isolate and communicate. It is not difficult to make an efficient mechanic of a person whose soul remains in all other departments primitive and barbarous." (304)
One thinks of Paul and the Corinthian community, of Wittgenstein and the philosophic hotshots around Russell, of Socrates and the young Athenian aristocrats -- all trying to bring about something more than a merely mechanical change.
In A Study of History, Toynbee tries to explain why great civilizations "stumble and fail in mid-career." What he says is remarkable: great civilizations fail because of problems in the way they appropriate and replicate the virtues and values of their leaders and heroes. The point is of quite general application, and it suggests a task that demands the combined talents of historians and moral philosophers. Indeed, Toynbee suggests that the serious moral philosopher must be a kind of historian, if he or she is to make a contribution to the maintenance of his or her civilization.
"Growth is the work of creative personalities and creative minorities; they cannot go on moving forward themselves unless they can contrive to carry their fellows with them in their advance; and the uncreative rank and file of mankind, which is always the overwhelming majority, cannot be transfigured en masse and raised to the stature of their leaders in the twinkling of an eye. That would be in practice impossible; for the inward spiritual grace through which the unillumined soul is fired by communion with the saint is almost as rare as the miracle that has brought the saint himself into the world. The leader’s task is to make his fellows his followers; and the only means by which mankind in the mass can be set in motion towards a goal beyond itself is by enlisting the primitive and universal faculty of mimesis. For this mimesis is a kind of social drill; and the dull ears that are deaf to the unearthly music of Orpheus’ lyre are well attuned to the drill sergeant’s word of command. When the Piper of Hamelin assumes King Frederick William’s Prussian voice, the rank and file, who have stood stolid hitherto, mechanically break into movement, and the evolution which he causes them to execute brings them duly to heel; but they can only catch him up by taking a short cut, and they can only find room to march in formation by deploying on the broad way which leadeth to destruction. When the road to destruction has perforce to be trodden on the quest of life, it is perhaps no wonder that the quest should often end in disaster.
Moreover, there is as weakness in the actual exercise of mimesis, quite apart from the way in which the faculty may be exploited. For, just because mimesis is a kind of drill, it is a kind of mechanization of human life and movement." (276)
Here's an education argument for just pre-school.
Kids are educated by their peers, sooner or later, usually sooner, so most of what parents and teachers try to do is just busywork. The one useful thing to do is to make peergroups transparent, so kids see what they are getting into. So one thing that educators can do (maybe the only thing they can do) is to make the self-revelation of each class member to the others easy, natural, constant, ongoing, and thorough.
Ebert is the kind of critic who helps people use movies to think about their lives, and who helps people to enjoy and appreciate even deeply flawed productions. Socrates says that the true lover of arguments loves all arguments. Ebert is on his way to being a true lover of movies. Also, Ebert lets movies be a starting point for other sorts of useful comments.
To give you a flavor of his work, I'll quote the last bit from his review of "The Five Senses":
"Interwoven stories like this can have a particular effect on me. Most movies tell linear plots in which the hero moves from A to B, accompanied by human plot devices. They can be very involving, but I also like the messiness of movies that cut from one story to another, showing how lives can intersect and separate.
Some people find these kinds of movies contrived. I think it is just the opposite. A to B stories are obviously plots. Stories like this one show that life goes on all around, and over and beneath, and inside, the artifice of plot."
This is good philosophy and helpful commentary. It suggests what lots of our intellectual life could be like, with just a bit more infused intelligence.
The basic experience of justice is that every day, as we wake up, some things are loudly there, immediately demanding and immediately satisfying. And every day, we have to put that loud stuff in its place, with relation to what has been there longer -- what we remember. We rescue our lives from the river of ongoing experience by insisting: "this is important, that isn't. This cannot be seen properly unless that is also recalled. We have been through this frustration before, and it always yields."
One is sometimes tempted to think of ethics as like calculus -- advanced work for human beings, after the basics of selfishness have been mastered. But I think that the ethical move is just an extension of what happens when we wake up, every day. We put our memories and experiences in order.
That suggests something a bit surprising: the work of memory, especially recalling what's important, turns out to be basic ethical work and a plausible training ground for justice. Ethics is at its root about taking account of things, and the ethical muscle is named "Take Account of More."
From Exodus, chapter 32: "And the LORD said to Moses, "Go down; for your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves; they have turned aside quickly out of the way which I commanded them; they have made for themselves a molten calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, 'These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!'" And the LORD said to Moses, "I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people; now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; but of you I will make a great nation."
But Moses besought the LORD his God, and said, "O LORD, why does thy wrath burn hot against thy people, whom thou hast brought forth out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, 'With evil intent did he bring them forth, to slay them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth'? Turn from thy fierce wrath, and repent of this evil against thy people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, thy servants, to whom thou didst swear by thine own self, and didst say to them, 'I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it for ever.'" And the LORD repented of the evil which he thought to do to his people."
Moses is offered, by God no less, the best deal anyone could get in the ancient world -- immortality by offspring. And he responds by giving God an ethics lesson -- and he wins the argument, thereby assuring a future for all those families who have been total pains in the backside to him, day after day, and giving up hope for his own family's future.
We usually remember Moses for standing up to the Egyptians. But he is more interesting for standing up to God, and sacrificing everything of value. And the Hebrews are interesting because they hold on to this sort of story.
In today's Strib, metro section, there's a piece about Lucas Helder, pipe bomber. He left notes "dismissing people to a better reality," according to Andrew Simcox, an examining psychologist, who continues, "Mr. Helder doesn't believe death exists. He has seen ghosts in the past. In Helder's world, bodies die, but spirits go to a higher dimension."
It's odd. That's just the stuff I heard at my uncle's funeral. A guy reported on ghostly visitations, and everybody professed loudly the view that my uncle wasn't really dead -- in fact, was better off now than before. I hope there weren't people with bomb-making skills in the congregation.
It is time to get over the idea that things we say in solemn, pious tones are safe and innocent. It is time to get over the idea that crimes are committed with bombs and guns. Crimes start out being just words.
I think it starts half an hour before sunrise, a fine time on Fall mornings. People tell me 40 make a meal. There are surely worse things to do. But Blake said something right that's relevant:
He who shall hurt the little wren
Shall never be beloved of men.
He who the ox to wrath has moved
Shall never be by woman loved.
I don't know what happens to people who shoot 40 doves a half hour before dawn.