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Orwell’s Rules and IB’s Rigors

August 28, 2014

Two years before publishing 1984, in 1946, Eric Blair penned “Politics and the English Language.” I’d never read it before last night, when Younger Daughter – fatigued by illness, fatigue compounded by the double-time effort to make up lost schoolwork in her rigorous (George Orwell might’ve called that a euphemism for inhumane) International Baccalaureate High School workload – invited me to read it with her.

I like it, a lot. (Others have problems with it.) It clearly foreshadows “doublespeak” and “thought police” and other skewering concepts made familiar by the author’s more famous dystopian classic.  And it provides some challenging Writer’s Rules I’m all too accustomed to breaking.

(i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
(ii) Never use a long word where a short one will do.
(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.
(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

Rule (vi) came as a big relief. That’s my excuse: I break the rules to repel barbarism!

But, I do have my doubts that very many of my college students – even my least barbarous Honors college students – would be up to finishing Younger Daughter’s elaborate class assignment in less than the two hours the IB teacher said would be the maximum time required to read and digest the piece and then analyze and critique the argument. What if every class assigned two hours of homework on a typical weeknight? Our time is still finite, after all, and mocking of most efforts at “management.” It’s hard to manage on four hours’ sleep.

I went to a meeting at the High School last night to learn all about the IB program. They take great pride in the program’s “rigorous” and unrelenting nature. I’m sure plenty of self-driven kids thrive under its regime and discover themselves through its discipline.

I worry about the others, though, the ones who’ll fail to thrive. They include the kids of Excellent Sheep, the hoop-jumpers and goal-chasers who will run through four years of higher education (elite or not) breaking their butts to please and impress teachers and parents and satisfy the demands of The System, only to come out the other end no closer to answering the big questions of our recent Opening Day: Who am I? Why am I here? 

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Who’s your favorite philosopher?

August 27, 2014

That’s the Philosophy Bites question we take up today in CoPhi. If you think it puts Descartes before the horse you can visit What is Philosophy? first. (That was the first bad phil-pun I heard, btw, from a perky Scot called Cogan on my first day of Grad School back in 1980. Not the last. It was already an old joke.) 


We don’t all agree on what philosophy is. Not even we “Americanists,” amongst ourselves. But we try to disagree agreeably. A little post-HAP 101 exchange between a pair of students once threatened for a moment to become disagreeable (unlike the class itself, which was thrilling in its impassioned civility). Almost made ‘em watch the Argument Clinic. “An argument isn’t just the automatic gainsaying of any statement the other person makes,” etc. etc.  But I don’t want to argue about that.

Maybe a round of Bruces would be welcome today, simultaneously introducing several stars of philosophy, teaching us how to pronounce “Nietzsche” (and mispronounce “Kant”) and disabusing anyone who falsely presumes our subject to be overly sober and serious about itself. If any doubt about that persists, just drop in on the Philosophy Club’s Thursday Happy Hour – not that I’d want to reinforce the spurious conceit that philosophers are drunks. G’day.

I don’t have a “favourite”… but my favorite (as I’ve already told my classes, on Day #1) is of 

course William James.I don’t always agree with him, but I almost always want to know he’d say about the topic du jour. 

Philosophy, beginning in wonder, as Plato and Aristotle said, is able to fancy everything different from what it is. It sees the familiar as if it were strange, and the strange as if it were familiar. It can take things up and lay them down again. Its mind is full of air that plays round every subject. It rouses us from our native dogmatic slumber and breaks up our caked prejudices. SPP

My favorite living philosopher is John Lachs. He came for a visit last year, to my CoPhi classes.

It’s no surprise that David Hume outpolls everyone on the podcast, given its Anglo-centric tilt, or that Mill and Locke pick up several votes. They’re all on my short list too, as is Bertrand Russell (who definitely knew the value of philosophy).

I notice that my Vandy friend Talisse is one of the handful of Americans here, and he, like Martha Nussbaum, picks Mill. Sandel picks Hegel.) Other big votegetters: Aristotle, Nietzsche, Wittgenstein.


No surprise either that James, Dewey, Peirce, Santayana, Rawls, and other prominent Yanks don’t win wide favor across the pond. (But I hear the Rawls musical has been a hit with the Brits.)

I did hear an English philosopher praising James once, on the BBC’s excellent “In Our Time.” But generally they prefer William’s “younger, shallower, vainer” (and more Anglophilic) brother Henry, who lived most of his adult life in Sussex.

The British roots of American thought do run deep, and the branches of reciprocal influence spread wide. Stay tuned for info on our Study Aboard course, as it moves from drawing board to future reality.

Why do I find WJ so compelling? Hard to put my finger on a single reason, there are so many. I was first drawn to him through his marvelous personal letters. Then, his essays (“On a Certain Blindness in Human Beings,” “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life,” “What Makes a Life Significant”) and lectures-cum-books (Varieties of Religious Experience, Pragmatism, A Pluralistic Universe). His warm, charming, playful, disarming, sympathetic personality shone through all. He was so great at tossing off wit, profundity, and practical wisdom with seeming effortlessness and concision. A born tweeter. But his health, physical and emotional, was a lifelong challenge. He expended vast effort to become William James.

Honestly, the best explanation for why I became a lifelong student of, and stroller with, WJ may just be that little moment in the Vandy bookstore back in my first year of grad school – the moment when my new mentor John Compton noticed me browsing the McDermott anthology o fThe Writings. John’s warm and enthusiastic familiarity with “Willy James” hooked me. Thank you, John.

The thing James said that’s stuck with me longest and made the most lasting impression, I think, is the little piece of youthful advice he once wrote to a despondent friend. I’m not quite sure why, but it lifts my mood every time I think of it:

Remember when old December’s darkness is everywhere about you, that the world is really in every minutest point as full of life as in the most joyous morning you ever lived through; that the sun is whanging down, and the waves dancing, and the gulls skimming down at the mouth of the Amazon, for instance, as freshly as in the first morning of creation; and the hour is just as fit as any hour that ever was for a new gospel of cheer to be preached. I am sure that one can, by merely thinking of these matters of fact, limit the power of one’s evil moods over one’s way of looking at the cosmos.

Is this true? Maybe. Is it useful? Definitely.


We’re also looking today at Nigel Warburton’s introduction to Philosophy: The Basics.(5th ed., 2013), in which he quite rightly points out that while philosophy can help you think about who you are and why you’re here – about the meaning of your life – it isn’t an alternative to other fields of study. “It is important not to expect too much of philosophy,” to  the neglect of literature and history and science and art, et al.

That’s right. But it’s equally important not to expect too little of yourself, and to think you’re not up to the challenge of an examined life. To repeat Professor James’s empowering declaration: I know that you, ladies and gentlemen, have a philosophy, each and all of you, and that the most interesting and important thing about you is the way in which it determines the perspective in your several worlds.” If you don’t all know that yet, CoPhilosophers, we’d better get to work. Serious fun, dead ahead. 

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Opening Day 2014!

August 25, 2014

I’ve notched a few of these Opening Days on my blog-stick, enough to form a patterned schtick involving Douglas Adams’ philosophical whale, Monty Python’s non-argument, and a few other comic-gimmicky invitations to the philosophy dance. (“Oh no, not that again.”) It’s my eternal recurrence, my groundhog day, my season-opener. I love it.

I always want to convey to students on Day 1 the simple message that philosophy is for everyone (or at least it can be… No it can’t… Yes it can… Oh look, this isn’t an argument…), that it’s at once sublime and ridiculous, frivolous and profound, serious and fun. Serious fun. When you start asking questions, all kinds of things can happen. You never know for sure what’s rushing to meet you, or whether it will be your friend. That’s why you philosophize, as Professor James professed more than a century ago in the lectures that would become Pragmatism.

I know that you, ladies and gentlemen, have a philosophy, each and all of you, and that the most interesting and important thing about you is the way in which it determines the perspective in your several worlds. You know the same of me. And yet I confess to a certain tremor at the audacity of the enterprise which I am about to begin. For the philosophy which is so important in each of us is not a technical matter; it is our more or less dumb sense of what life honestly and deeply means. It is only partly got from books; it is our individual way of just seeing and feeling the total push and pressure of the cosmos.

Right: you’re all individuals, all citizens of the cosmos, all with your own way of seeing and feeling and talking. So let’s introduce ourselves and get talking, CoPhilosophers. For,

Whatever universe a professor believes in must at any rate be a universe that lends itself to lengthy discourse. A universe definable in two sentences is something for which the professorial intellect has no use. 

Nor the westernized philosophizing student intellect, either.

But of course we do know there’s a hard terminus awaiting this journey called life. Is it finally terminal, or a gateway, or a release? That’s a great philosophical question. Should we live as though we knew the end to be THE END? Another good one. Different philosophers have offered different answers. We should consider them. We will.

But lots of students, even some of the “best” students, don’t. A review in yeterday’s Times of William Deresiewicz’ Excellent Sheep indicts some Ivy League overachievers for underselling themselves, not asking big questions, not giving themselves the thrill and the mind-expanding experience of philosophizing while they’re still young enough for that activity to alter them in constructive ways. “Once in college, these young people lead the same Stakhanovite lives, even though they’re no longer competing to get in. They accept endless time-sucking activity and pointless competition as the natural condition of future leaders. Too busy to read or make friends, listen to music or fall in love, they waste the precious years that they should be devoting to building their souls on building their résumés.”

“The faculty could and should push these gifted obsessives to slow down and ask big questions.” That’s my cue. We’re not in the Ivy League, but we’ve all got our gifts and our obsessions. We’ve all got questions to ask and minds to expand and souls to build. So let’s get busy!

(You too, Environmental Ethicists.)

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Pretty good sheep

August 22, 2014

It’s Fall Faculty Meeting day at my school this morning, the annual inaugural summons to congregate in Tucker Auditorium to be alternately cheered and chastened by our leader. Classes begin Monday.

It’s Move-in Day for students and their box-hauling families, too. I’ll warn them, the schlepping and hauling never really stops. Older Daughter phoned home just yesterday with an urgent request to bundle and ship a bunch of stuff we missed.

With the academic year thus underway, and anticipating another talk from the top recycling the refrain that we need to get ‘em in and get ‘em out, thoughts turn again to the big question of what it is we’re supposed to be doing here.

A new critique of elite higher ed called Excellent Sheep calls out the ivy league for producing conformists instead of freethinkers and leaders. That’s the buzz, anyway. I haven’t read it. I have read reviews like this one, in the form of an open letter to author William Deresiewicz.

“You trace academe’s troubles to “the Gilded Age,” when colleges became engines of social stratification as wealth was created in the Industrial Revolution. But these conflicts about educational purpose in bourgeois societies are cyclical—already in prospering Athens, Socrates and Protagoras were arguing about education as soul-searching skepticism in service of personal and civic virtue, versus education as learning to get ahead in the world by giving the right answers.”*

True enough. But excellent sheep at least do the reading and look for answers themselves. The current factory model we’ve been urged to deploy at our large public university, I fear, falls short even of that faded ideal. We’re just supposed to get students out into the world, credentialed for employment. Whether they develop soul enough to engage in constructive questioning seems not to be our charge.

But it will always be mine. I will always tell my students that if they can get both a degree and a sense of self and a life-direction in four years, go for it! But if they need to do what I did, to take a little longer, to switch majors in mid-stream and thus discover an avocation as well as a vocation, and can find a way to fund that exploration, then my board of regents and administrative overlords should have nothing to say in opposition.

In short, my mission is to subvert the factory model. That’s what I take “student-centered” learning really to mean.

*What Ails Elite Education? – The Chronicle Review – The Chronicle of Higher Education

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How life itself can pass us by

August 21, 2014

Like a film. Interesting to read a small remembrance of Robin Williams from someone who actually knew him well, not just as a screen persona. 

He was very childlike. I remember him asking his second wife, Marsha, for permission—‘Can I go swimming now?’ He was Peter Pan… He made fun of himself, which a lot of comedians can’t, and he had a great laugh, and there was not a mean streak in him.” Penny Marshall in The New Yorker

 I’d been discussing the gap between celebrity and intimacy with an astute film expert, noting that we think we know famous people when the reality is that they’re not well known even to themselves. Self-knowledge is hard to come by for us all, and harder still for those whose fictional larger-than-life projections are constantly mirrored back at them. So it’s reassuring to realize that Robin was pretty much who he seemed to be.

That same astute film expert summarizes the affecting power of Boyhood much better than I did:

It is about the fragility of life, this particular time and place in history, about parenting, teaching and childhood (of a certain class, race and gender), not investing in politics, and, most of all, about how life itself can pass us by like a film.

“Life itself.” Roger Ebert’s book arrived here yesterday. I’d read it and seen it, now I want to give it to someone whose life has recently hit the fast track on its way I’m sure to extraordinary and spectacular things. Someone else with a passion for cinematic portrayals of life itself. It will complement that Moleskine, which I’ve found to be one of the best ways of slowing life down just long enough to appreciate it before it passes us by.

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Things to be proud of

August 19, 2014

Lots of news I can use on today’s Writer’s Almanac.

First, fun facts for film majors like Older Daughter: it’s the anniversary of the epochal day in 1829 when Louis Daguerre announced the invention of his photographic prototype, the daguerrotype. “People were afraid at first to look for any length of time at the pictures he produced. They were embarrassed by the clarity of these figures and believed that the little, tiny faces of the people in the pictures could see out at them, so amazing did the unaccustomed detail and the unaccustomed truth to nature of the first daguerreotypes appear to everyone.” Plato warned us about mistaking representations for reality. But pictures are revelatory, and thanks to Louis it’s possible today to major in them.

And, it’s the birthday of Philo T. Farnsworth. Television can be a lot like Plato’s cave, of course, but at its best it can also shine a light.

Funnest fact of all, today: it’s the birthday of The Great Bird of the Galaxy, Gene Roddenberry, who gave us Kirk and Spock and Sulu et al. 

Star Trek was the first sci-fi series to depict a generally peaceful future, and that came from Roddenberry’s fundamental optimism about the human race. “It speaks to some basic human needs,” he said in 1991, “that there is a tomorrow — it’s not all going to be over in a big flash and a bomb, that the human race is improving, that we have things to be proud of as humans. No, ancient astronauts did not build the pyramids — human beings built them because they’re clever and they work hard. And Star Trek is about those things.”

Gene went out with style, aboard the space shuttle Columbia in ’92. NASA then honored him for “distinguished service to the Nation and the human race in presenting the exploration of space as an exciting frontier and a hope for the future.” It’s too easy to give up on that, in these days of destruction. 

But we must keep reminding ourselves: Ferguson, MO.,  near the University of Missouri-St. Louis where I first matriculated back when Gene was still dreaming up strange new worlds and a hopeful human future, is still just a small corner of the galaxy.

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A new leaf

August 18, 2014

It’s Older Daughter’s first day of class at her new school, a vicarious Opening Day for me. (My own is just a week away now.) Day 1, a new beginning, a fresh start, a clean slate, a tabula rasa, a rising sun. September in August.

“[T]hat old September feeling, left over from school days, of summer passing, vacation nearly done, obligations gathering, books and football in the air … Another fall, another turned page: there was something of jubilee in that annual autumnal beginning, as if last year’s mistakes had been wiped clean by summer.” Wallace Stegner

“Football in the air” doesn’t resonate for me as it does for most, this time of year. But I suspended my Holy Crusade against the game Malcolm Gladwell likens to a dogfight long enough to enjoy the spirited post-New Student Convocation pep rally in the Heartland the other afternoon. Go Dawgs. But, behave yourselves off the field and remember that a student-athlete is a student first.

The rally was only overtly and ritually and superficially about the game. What matters is the camaraderie, the sense of a shared collaborative project, a mutually supportive singular identity, a common cause. It’s jarring to begin all over again, in a new place. But it’ll be more than comforting to come back to that place again and again, in years to come, with the old slate wiped clean. 

That’s precisely what I love so much about my own daily pre-dawn ritual, this game I play every morning. I’m not here to beat anyone, though. I’m just trying to feel the pep and channel it, like old Arnold Bennett who said “you can turn over a new leaf every hour if you choose.” Every dawn seems the steadier pace, for me.

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“There’s a place…

August 14, 2014

where lives are meant to be lived…” And it’s in the middle of midwestern coal country. Who knew?

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An extraordinary legacy

August 12, 2014

“Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, old time is still a flying, and this same flower that smiles today, tomorrow will be dying.” 


I didn’t know Robin Williams, nor apparently did he know himself well enough when he said bad times always awaken us to “the stuff you weren’t paying attention to.” But I know how inspired I was, first time I saw him in this role. Extraordinary.

We are food for worms lads. Because, believe it or not, each and every one of us in this room is one day going to stop breathing, turn cold, and die. Now I would like you to step forward over here and peruse some of the faces from the past. You’ve walked past them many times. I don’t think you’ve really looked at them. They’re not that different from you, are they? Same haircuts. Full of hormones, just like you. Invincible, just like you feel. The world is their oyster. They believe they’re destined for great things, just like many of you. Their eyes are full of hope, just like you. Did they wait until it was too late to make from their lives even one iota of what they were capable? Because you see gentlmen, these boys are now fertilizing daffodils. But if you listen real close, you can hear them whisper their legacy to you. Go on, lean in. Hear it? Carpe. Carpe Diem. Seize the day boys, make your lives extraordinary. Dead Poets Society

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Boyhood

August 11, 2014

Older Daughter and I saw “Boyhood” last night at the Belcourt. At last, a film for grownups. It’s a remarkable meditation on the passage of time, the experience of growing up, searching for the point of things, celebrating milestones, settling sometimes for less than life might have been expected to offer, and through it all learning. It was filmed over a dozen years of the actors’ actual lives, thus achieving a startling, mesmerizing realism. 2’45” shot by in a flash. Despite a series of depressing, distressing male figures in the protagonist Mason’s life, our ultimate takeaway as he commences college is affirming and uplifting.

So many of the men in “Boyhood” seem like losers, or bullies, or both, minds and mouths locked tight with disapproval and denial, and the challenge for Mason—and, you feel, for any kid—is not just to survive the squalls of youth but somehow to grow from boy to man without suffering a death of the spirit. Anthony Lane

Do we live and learn, or is the living hard enough on its own? Pals, teachers, sour stepdads, and early girlfriends come and go, caught up, like Mason, in time’s current. What a relief to find him emerging intact at the end, with happiness still in reach. New Yorker 

My experience of time at Saturday’s commencement at my school was a bit more sluggish, and my colleague’s address to the graduates about it being time to forget about the “very large number” of their graduating peers and get on with focusing on themselves, “you, the one,” struck me as sounding a note of individualist exclusion that really needs and deserves no reinenforcement from the academy. But, I emerged from it too with my hopefulness intact and my relief palpable.

And happiness was still in reach. Another colleague, on our way out of the Murphy Center – not the one who commented on the halloweenish quality of our caps and gowns – exclaimed, “they were so happy!”

And to the colleague on my left conspicuously working a crossword and fiddling with his phone all through the ceremonial roll-call and conferral of degrees: consider yourself peer-reviewed as a reprobate and an embarrassment to our profession. You might as well have stayed home and thrown your own party. You’re evidently not grown up enough to wear those duds and sit in that seat to celebrate our students’ transition from girl- and boyhood.

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