Archive for August, 2015

I believe in walking and talking

August 31, 2015

And pedaling. My wife and I went for a bikeride yesterday on the old converted rails-to-trails greenspace that runs along the Cumberland River near Ashland City, enjoying the mild breezy weather and even the light rain that accompanied the last leg of our trip. Good conversation and good times just seem to flow better when you’re moving but in no hurry to get somewhere.

In CoPhi today we revisit “This I Believe,” in book form the freshman summer read (again) and in format the model I’m suggesting students follow for their final reports this semester. They can post their short essays of core conviction on our site and on TIB’s, along with accompanying podcast recordings if they choose.

Some philosophy teachers encourage their Intro students to focus more on what others have believed, but I believe a philosophy course is all about finding words and voice for the inarticulate philosophy William James says we all have whether we know it or not.

So I’ve asked students to find TIB essays they like, share them, talk about them, listen to their classsmates’ views, and begin thinking about how to frame their own TIB essays. Some of their early nominations: Warren Christopher on trust, Jackie Robinson on free minds & hearts, M. Gandhi on peace, moving beyond stereotypes, being cool to the pizza dude, the power of hello…

And because we’re still getting accustomed to the walk-and-talk approach to philosophy and learning, today we’re looking at what peripatetics believe too.

Time is not money; time is a an opportunity to live before you die. So a man who walks, and lives and sees and thinks as he walks, has lengthened his life. Donald Culross Peattie, Joy of Walking

Walking means seeing the unseen, understanding, friendship, privacy, emotional perspective, physical capacity… an image of life itself. John Man, Walk!

This book could not have been written by sitting still. The relationship between paths, walking and the imagination is its subject, and much of its thinking was therefore done — was only possible — while on foot… walking [is] a reconnoitre inwards, and the subtle ways in which we are shaped by the landscapes through which we move. Robert MacFarlane, The Old Ways

I believe they’re right.

And I believe Calvin shouldn’t worry so much about what other people think.


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A happy start

August 28, 2015

This has been just about as perfect a first week of class as I’ve ever enjoyed, with enthusiastic students, mild weather, and a convivial revival of the post-Happiness Happy Hour tradition at the Boulevard last night. We were all peripatetic, no one was pathetic, all is copacetic. Everyone in Happy Class seems already to get the crucial point of presence, of being fully awake and alive to the moment at hand. We all seem happy to be here this week, and happy to keep on walking. Happy but not sappy, with nuanced views of the backdrop of cruelty and suffering that honest happiness cannot ignore or explain away. When I asked students to react to old Schopenhauer’s repudiation of our subject, the responses were thoughtful, balanced, and wise.

Athletes speak of “staying within themselves,” which I interpret to mean something like presence in motion and a disciplined commitment to training.  For a peripatetic philosopher that translates into a series of measured steps, establishing a reliable rhythm of corporeal movement that the mind naturally falls in with, making thought and forthright conversation flow. Endorphins too. Maybe that’s how you “dissolve” (as Maria Popova says Willa Cather said) into happiness. And health. And a sense of meaning and purpose, if that’s what you’re looking for too.

Walk on!

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Peripatetics in Tennessee

August 27, 2015

The great peripatetic experiment seems to be working. Took both of my afternoon CoPhi classes out and across campus yesterday, 30+ students in each, ambling at a leisurely pace in discussion groups of 3, chewing on the questions What’s philosophy, what’s yours, & who’s your favorite philosopher? We all met up at the Naked Eye Observatory, the Uranidrome, to compare notes, in the mid-to-late afternoon shade of Pluto and the Trans-Neptunian Objects, and after a bit resumed our trek. Complaints about bugs and heat and weary feet were few, appreciation of the open sky (which of course the brain is wider than, as Emily Dickinson the philosopher said) and fresh air was evident on many faces.

Image result for naked eye observatory mtsu

Next stop, the steps of the oldest and most classical-looking structure on our campus, the Old Main (KOM). Many interesting things were reported and later posted on our site. Some named usual suspects as their faves – Aristotle, Hume, Thoreau – while others surprised us – D.H Lawrence (or T.E., they weren’t certain), T.S. Eliot, the author of  Kite Runner. 

Image result for kom mtsu

And then, the fire engine and campus police suddenly swarmed our location with sirens blaring. We decided it might be best to move along. But we’ll be back.

And back as well, at least in one small corner of middle Tennessee, is the proud, unduly-neglected, and now no-longer-dormant old Lyceum tradition of walking-and-talking philosophy.

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Small stuff

August 26, 2015

Had two more Opening Day classes yesterday, beginning with my first-ever 8 am class and concluding with the Philosophy of Happiness. Both went well, dwarfing the trivial annoyances, interruptions, and worries – a malfunctioning machine, a pair of looming deadlines, a nonconforming online form – that crowded in to fill the day’s midsection. The early class gave me just the timely distraction I needed, from a rude school crossing-guard’s gratuitous shout and whistle. (There must be magic in those whistles, the way they seem to empower some of their blowers with a sense of arrogant authority.) The later class compensated for the computer “help” that was no help at all.

The great thing about my job, and I suppose any job that regularly offers the possibility of absorption and constructive interaction with interested/interesting humans, is that when it goes well it makes all that other stuff and nonsense feel as small as it really is. A time-out from turbulence and trouble, a reminder of the shopworn wisdom in the old cliche about not sweating the small stuff.

In Happiness class I solicited a class Grump, someone who would admit to being unimpressed by our culture’s manic pursuit of happiness and disinterested in its attainment. One or two confessed to a streak of pessimism but most seemed amenable to my Jamesian starting-point:

If we were to ask the question: “What is human life’s chief concern?” one of the answers we should receive would be: “It is happiness.” How to gain, how to keep, how to recover happiness, is in fact for most men at all times the secret motive of all they do, and of all they are willing to endure. William James

So, we’ll let Schopenhauer’s ghost be our class Grump this time:

What disturbs and depresses young people is the hunt for happiness on the firm assumption that it must be met with in life. From this arises constantly deluded hope and so also dissatisfaction. Deceptive images of a vague happiness hover before us in our dreams, and we search in vain for their original. Much would have been gained if, through timely advice and instruction, young people could have had eradicated from their minds the erroneous notion that the world has a great deal to offer them.”

Well, I said, he’s wrong. Oh, the world offers us plenty of small-potatoes unhappiness every day (see paragraph 1 above), the small stuff we all tend to sweat. But as yesterday reminded me, it offers other stuff too. Good stuff.

And I’m going to push my line on Schopenhauer: his ghost will never admit it, but his profession of pessimism made him happy.

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August 25, 2015

New Orleans was founded on this date in 1718. Some of my new students are from there (met two of my new classes yesterday, two more today), as is one of my favorite old ones. The scene in the courtyard yesterday just outside my classroom on Opening Day was perfectly mild and evocative of summer’s transition to school days. The soundtrack would have to be something sweet and jazzy.

Quick free association: first thing you think of, when you think of the crescent city? Louis Armstrong, Mardi Gras, letting the good times roll? Katrina? For me it’s one Ignatius J. Reilly, philosopher-slob, critic of modernity, Boethius and Batman enthusiast who said “leaving New Orleans also frightened me considerably. Outside of the city limits the heart of darkness, the true wasteland begins.” I love it that New Orleans has a statue of him, not that many fictional antiheroes earn such a distinction.

“You must begin a reading program immediately so that you may understand the crises of our age,” Ignatius said solemnly. “Begin with the late Romans, including Boethius, of course. Then you should dip rather extensively into early Medieval. You may skip the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. That is mostly dangerous propaganda. Now that I think of it, you had better skip the Romantics and the Victorians, too. For the contemporary period, you should study some selected comic books… I recommend Batman especially, for he tends to transcend the abysmal society in which he’s found himself. His morality is rather rigid, also. I rather respect Batman.” ― John Kennedy Toole, A Confederacy of Dunces 

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What is college for?

August 24, 2015

Isn’t that a good question to ask, on the first day of class? And to keep on asking? It deserves more than the ritual lip-service we tend to give it at term’s beginning, before settling into autopilot.

I tend to treat Opening Day of the academic season much as I treat its April counterpart in baseball, as a lighthearted and festive occasion to wax just a bit silly on a subject I care deeply and seriously about. But setting aside Douglas Adams’ philosophical whale and Monty Python’s Argument Clinic for a moment,  I want to think a bit this morning about that question. It’s the title of chapter five of William Deresiewicz’s controversial book Excellent Sheep, and it’s really the main subject of that book (which generated most of its heat with a critique of elite education, but whose message applies to us public land-grant educators and our students as well). Some of its more trenchant observations:

“College, after all, as those who like to denigrate it often say, is “not the real world.” But that is precisely its strength. College is an opportunity to stand outside the world for a few years, between the orthodoxy of your family and the exigencies of career, and contemplate things from a distance.”

“Life is more than a job; jobs are more than a paycheck; and a country is more than its wealth. Education is more than the acquisition of marketable skills, and you are more than your ability to contribute to your employer’s bottom line or the nation’s GDP, no matter what the rhetoric of politicians or executives would have you think. To ask what college is for is to ask what life is for, what society is for—what people are for. Do students ever hear this? What they hear is a constant drumbeat, in the public discourse, that seeks to march them in the opposite direction. When policy makers talk about higher education, from the president all the way down, they talk exclusively in terms of math and science. Journalists and pundits—some of whom were humanities majors and none of whom are nurses or engineers—never tire of lecturing the young about the necessity of thinking prudently when choosing a course of study, the naïveté of wanting to learn things just because you’re curious about them.” 

“You’re told that you’re supposed to go to college, but you’re also told that you are being self-indulgent if you actually want to get an education. As opposed to what? Going into consulting isn’t self-indulgent? Going into finance isn’t self-indulgent? Going into law, like most of the people who do, in order to make yourself rich, isn’t self-indulgent? It’s not okay to study history, because what good does that really do anyone, but it is okay to work for a hedge fund. It’s selfish to pursue your passion, unless it’s also going to make you a lot of money, in which case it isn’t selfish at all.” 

“What’s the return on investment of college? What’s the return on investment of having children, spending time with friends, listening to music, reading a book? The things that are most worth doing are worth doing for their own sake. Anyone who tells you that the sole purpose of education is the acquisition of negotiable skills is attempting to reduce you to a productive employee at work, a gullible consumer in the market, and a docile subject of the state. What’s at stake, when we ask what college is for, is nothing less than our ability to remain fully human.” 

“In 1971, 73 percent of incoming freshmen said that it is essential or very important to “develop a meaningful philosophy of life,” 37 percent to be “very well-off financially” (not well-off, note, but very well-off). By 2011, the numbers were almost reversed, 47 percent and 80 percent, respectively. For well over thirty years, we’ve been loudly announcing that happiness is money, with a side order of fame. No wonder students have come to believe that college is all about getting a job.” 

“The idea that we should take the first four years of young adulthood and devote them to career preparation alone, neglecting every other part of life, is nothing short of an obscenity. If that’s what people had you do, then you were robbed. And if you find yourself to be the same person at the end of college as you were at the beginning – the same beliefs, the same values, the same desires, the same goals for the same reasons – then you did it wrong. Go back and do it again.”  

Every teacher and student, not just the ivies, should read Excellent Sheep, and then its sequel How College Sold Its Soul to the Market“:

As college is increasingly understood in terms of jobs and careers, and jobs and careers increasingly mean business, especially entrepreneurship, students have developed a parallel curriculum for themselves, a parallel college, where they can get the skills they think they really need. Those extracurriculars that students are deserting the classroom for are less and less what Pinker derides as “recreational” and more and more oriented toward future employment: entrepreneurial endeavors, nonprofit ventures, volunteerism. The big thing now on campuses — or rather, off them — is internships.

All this explains a new kind of unhappiness I sense among professors. There are a lot of things about being an academic that basically suck: the committee work, the petty politics, the endless slog for tenure and promotion, the relentless status competition. What makes it all worthwhile, for many people, is the vigorous intellectual dialogue you get to have with vibrant young minds. That kind of contact is becoming unusual. Not because students are dumber than they used to be, but because so few of them approach their studies with a sense of intellectual mission. College is a way, learning is a way, of getting somewhere else. Students will come to your office — rushing in from one activity, rushing off to the next — to find out what they need to do to get a better grade. Very few will seek you out to talk about ideas in an open-ended way. Many professors still do care deeply about thinking and learning. But they often find that they’re the only ones.

Too bleak for Opening Day? Maybe it’s not too late for some of us to retain or regain our souls. Hope springs eternal, in the beginning.

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Staying awake

August 21, 2015

It’s Fall Faculty Meeting day already, that annual kickoff event just  before classes begin when we all are supposed to crowd into the stuffy dramatic arts auditorium for a pep talk – last year more a scolding – from the top, a roll-call of new colleagues, and a sentimental farewell from one of our retiring number. We don’t all go, there are boycotters among us, but I wouldn’t miss it. Or the free lunch to follow. It’s good to begin the year with a sense of the campus zeitgeist and the policy imperatives our administrative controllers intend to execute. As William Stafford’s poem says, “it is important that awake people be awake… the darkness around us is deep.” WA

It’s the birthday of late novelist Robert Stone (1937), who said “Writing is lonely… most of the time you are in a room by yourself. Writers spend more time in rooms, staying awake in quiet rooms, than they do hunting lions in Africa.” Staying awake is today’s theme, it seems. Not everybody manages that well, at the fall faculty meeting.

I’ve given myself one last summer read, or re-read, just finishing again the masterful Wallace Stegner’s All the Little Live Things. What a depth of insight into the crotchety and complicated relations between the generations, and into the contradictory ways nature and life are both beautiful and cruel. From beginning (“How do I know what I think till I see what I say?”)  to end (“I shall be richer all my life for this sorrow”) Stegner kept me both awake and dreaming in the surrounding darkness, the way only really great literature can. What a magnificent writer. He’s one I’ll mention the next time a student tells me she doesn’t read fiction because it’s not “true.” Wake up, kids, and dream.

And now my summer’s dream ends. It’s back onto the highway for the long commute to school. I have an event-appropriate audiobook cued up for the ride: William Deresewiecz’s Excellent Sheep. His recent postscript in Harper’s is worth every educator’s time, and it’ll be much on my mind in Tucker Auditorium this morning. “How college sold its soul,” indeed. Thank goodness for the honest refuge of fiction.

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Music of the spheres

August 20, 2015

Voyager 2 was launched 38 years ago today, towing a golden (actually copper) record featuring the sites, sounds, voices, and music of earth.

The contents of the record were selected for NASA by a committee chaired by Carl Sagan of Cornell University, et. al. Dr. Sagan and his associates assembled 115 images and a variety of natural sounds, such as those made by surf, wind and thunder, birds, whales, and other animals. To this they added musical selections from different cultures and eras…

Would an alien intelligence listen to music, or even have ears? Mathematics is supposed to be the universal language, but this is way more fun to imagine. ET be goode!

“The spacecraft will be encountered and the record played only if there are advanced spacefaring civilizations in interstellar space. But the launching of this bottle into the cosmic ocean says something very hopeful about life on this planet.”

And about musical sophistication in the cosmos.

Gene Roddenberry imagined our first warp drive ride into space accompanied by Steppenwolf’s “Magic Carpet Ride.” Wouldn’t it be nice!

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We built that

August 19, 2015

Gene Roddenberry, the “Great Bird of the Galaxy,” would have celebrated his 94th birthday today. His optimism spoke to a basic need I too seem to have had already at age 9 (and still have), when he introduced the Enterprise, Vulcan philosophy, the Prime Directive, and intergalactic and inter-species (never mind interracial) comity. His version of the human trek insisted that “there is a tomorrow — it’s not all going to be over in a big flash and a bomb, the human race is improving, 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.”

I saw Roddenberry speak at my school when I was an undergrad in the 70s, at a time of American “malaise” when we all seemed to need a  re-infusion of that kind of humanistic, naturalistic, melioristic thinking. We could use a booster. Who else is going to build the better future?

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‘The Philosopher’

August 18, 2015
I think I’ve found this academic season’s poetic anthem and keynote, just in time for the first day of the Fall term in what I’m dubbing the Year of the Peripatetic. We’ll be leaving our “chamber drear” at every opportunity, especially while the summer’s sun is still with us. 

Enough of Thought, Philosopher;
Too long hast thou been dreaming
Unlightened, in this chamber drear –
While summer’s sun is beaming –
Space-sweeping soul, what sad refrain
Concludes thy musings once again?
– Emily Brontë (1818-1848), ‘The Philosopher

Emily Brontë – Philosopher
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