image by sarah mccoy photo

Monday, March 30, 2015

Reason in a Rhimes World

An easy thing to do these days is to publicize your opinions in about 600 pithy words (she wrote, in the first of about 600 pithy words.) Then, social networks allow for small alliances to be built, for a day, on the foundation of these editorials. Who shared this vaccines post, who was notably silent on that parenting diatribe and so on. 

For these low-stakes opinion skirmishes, it’s often enough that the blogger has restated what we already believe or that someone’s words resonated with us. We require little in terms of evidence or research. In other words, we choose sides based largely on our feelings.

I often come back to this idea of philosophy as the basis for action. Your beliefs, whether you’d characterize them as religious or irreligious or somewhere more nuanced, are never neutral. They are defining principles that, like the roots of a tree, flow directly into action: the fruit of your existence.

 Except when they don’t. People who don’t know exactly where they stand, or what they believe about fundamentals (like what it is to be human, why we’re here, where we fit into our environment, and why we even conceive of right and wrong) are like an apple seed that grows the trunk of a beech and produces holly berries and pansies. In nature, we would suspect this specimen of being, gasp, a sordid kind of GMO.

Feelings are so elevated in our culture that it’s not odd to hear an educated person cut off reasoned discussion by saying, “Well, this is just how I FEEL.” To which there is no response, not because feelings are always legitimate, but because there is usually no reasoning with them. It takes cojones to stand up to feelings in a culture where they are so dangerously precious.

Conversely, a philosophy will help a person to examine his own emotions. He might find that his emotions are justified, but if he finds that they aren’t, he can master them like a hero. Noble actions are the result not of bulldozing the world with your feelings like a character in a Shonda Rhimes teledrama, but of overcoming your feelings to do what your mind, thoughtfully, has decided is more important, or more true.

The prophet Isaiah (like this leap I’m taking?) gives a dramatic warning to women, saying in chapter 32, “Tremble, you complacent women; shudder, you daughters who feel secure! Strip off your fine clothes and wrap yourselves in rags.” It’s not sound exegesis, but it’s also not a huge stretch to imagine that in our physical First World comfort, we feel a parallel false security in the personal, inconsequential nature of our opinions. But complacency about the weight of ideas and the state of our own thinking leads to scary places. 
Zombie movie places.

Here’s where it gets interesting. Isaiah wasn’t actually sent to turn Israel’s hearts and minds. He was sent to harden them. Which reminds me of this frustrating fact: emotional people have a predictable response to rational argument: the greater the evidence that their position is wrong, the more staunchly they dig in their heels. This is why college campus debates are vitriolic: the kids come for the fight, not the counterpoint.
But we aren’t Israel and this isn’t 740 B.C. We get a chance to do more than Rhimes-culture demands of us: think through the ideas behind things before we decide how we feel about them. What does the band Imagine Dragons mean when they sing, “It all comes back to you?” and is it true? Do you have to choose between Heidegger and metaphysical traditions, or is that a false dichotomy? Can there be multiple opinions on a question decided in a lab?

When I read opinion pieces on anything from free-range parenting to racial profiling to intervention and national sovereignty, I notice a common thread: most arguments are surface and personal. Rare is the writer who starts by stating overtly his philosophy on, say, human depravity or goodness or some such foundation from which to form his conclusion logically. So we can only hope that readers seek out the roots of ideas before they click “share.”

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Knowledge and Humility

There are three common reactions to kids who quote Shakespeare and Cicero. Some are impressed (your kids must be so smart!) some are intimidated (you must be a supermom!) and some are indignant (you raise trick ponies!). The answer to all of these is, not coincidentally, also the ultimate aim of learning the Shakespeare and the Cicero: humility.

Proverbs 11:2 is one of many variations on this Biblical theme: “When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with the humble is wisdom.”

Wisdom and knowledge are among those paradoxical achievements, like maturity and leadership ability, where cognizance of one’s deficiencies is the primary mark of attainment.  Therefore, when we memorize and synthesize information, it is in the pursuit of the humility that characterizes true wisdom.

The adage, “a little knowledge is dangerous,” contains a warning like that in Proverbs: if a few trivial facts have you running to show off your big brain, any truly knowledgeable person will soon ask a question that reveals the depth of your research, and pride will indeed precede disgrace.

American education paired with self-esteem parenting leads to just this balloon of ego. An example I often come back to is the American assessment of foreign language abilities. It is entirely commonplace to hear American students, with a few years of language class completed and a sum vocabulary of colors, numbers, and food names under their belts, announce confidently that they “speak French.” Conversely, Eastern Europeans, who are often essentially fluent in three to six languages, will insist (fluently) that they “don’t speak English very well.”

A phenomenon happens when you begin to amass knowledge and to discuss it with a caring mentor: you develop a sense of your place in the world and in history. And the effect of this perspective is both to humble and inspire. Memorizing history impresses on you that most great things happened before you and without you. You are a tiny cog. But learning about a Joan of Arc or an Eli Whitney also teaches a child to aspire to heroism. You learn the lessons that led to great falls and great victories and you choose which to emulate.

May we always repent when a little Cicero goes to our heads. But also, may we always know how to clarify our aims. Much modern learning is aimed at utility. Classical, Christian learning has in its sights the development of wisdom, and the wise are first the humble.

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Method or Madness?

Once upon a time, I had a grad school professor who wanted to see methodologies in papers. The thing about methodologies is, the majority of papers don’t have them. So, having perused all the papers in the syllabus and found no examples, I sought more information.

“I’m supposed to what? Don’t I already have a clear thesis?” said I in consternation.

The other students I asked were equally confused and the Man wouldn’t deign to furnish examples, saying that he couldn’t possibly explain it better than he had.

(I submitted my final to the same Man from a hospital bed where I was having a baby because he didn’t accept frivolous excuses for lateness. Enough said on his quality.)

Many years later, I have read many papers (thought still a small percentage) with methodologies and here’s what I think:

Methodologies are stupid. Don’t ever write one.

My guess is that years ago, political scientists thought they could bulk up the sciencey-ness of their research by copying procedural descriptions from the scientific method.

But political science isn’t a real science. It’s a realm of theories and assumptions (good and bad) about humans. A romantic view of human nature has never accounted well for the evil in the world, and even a realistic view can’t predict a sudden change of heart, a quickening of courage or nobility. Neither has proved consistently useful in predicting human events.  Political science is not useless (hopes my husband, who paid for my degree), but it’s also not quarks and neutrons and thermodynamics.

In writing, purpose is stated in a thesis. From there, we needn’t break the natural flow of things to offer a stilted definition of what a position paper is. We all know that you’re going to use your words to support your ideas.

I’ve never met a methodology that did anything that the points of a well-constructed paper couldn’t have accomplished more artfully and powerfully on their own.

It’s as if a triple jumper began his run, then pulled up and shouted, “I’m going to jump with one leg! Then the other! Then I’ll land on two feet and try to make my total distance really impressive!” before continuing his event.

Wouldn’t that be helpful?

I just wanted to say that to the Man.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Notes From The Education Lab

A year into one of my grand educational experiments, the results seem promising.

I wanted to cultivate a taste for higher things in my kids. I wanted them to experience something more transcendent than the cheap kind of appreciation that consists in deeming great things merely pretty.

I was playing a cd here and a radio station there and realized that playing masterpieces without context and order is just a survey, a lightweight college elective. So I planned an experiment in an attempt to teach a child " praise beautiful things and take delight in them and receive them into his soul to foster its growth and become himself beautiful and good," as Plato would have it.


This was the plan: to play one composer's works repeatedly and not move on until we knew him inside and out...or tolerably well. We started with Vivaldi because I happened to have an album handy.

The first thing I gained was a perfect demonstration of the weakness of the survey method, because the girls immediately began identifying all orchestral music, down to current movie soundtracks, as "Baldy."

But after awhile, they knew Vivaldi better, could identify Baroque flourishes and the sounds of the individual instruments. So I then introduced something completely different, also what I happened to have on hand: a cd of Chopin, all piano. We played these two in between Veggie Tales and jazz and Canadian indie bands, mostly just in the car. We eventually did the same with Beethoven via a Classical Kids story album, and then added Holst's The Planets because we were studying astronomy and needed something to play musical chairs to.

Each time, we listened and discussed and made friends with the music and its author before inviting any new composers in. A year ago they were conflating The Four Seasons and the Indiana Jones Theme. Checking in at about the year mark, here's the result: twice in the past week, while walking around stores with quiet ambient music, Gale Force has stopped to listen and announce, "I know this. This is..." and then correctly identify the composer.

I'm not raising trick ponies or anything, and you're not meant to be impressed, but rather encouraged.  Because though it isn't much to know a few pieces and who wrote them, the fact is that, knowing a few pieces well, Gale Force stopped to listen.

Loving things like Bach etudes or Tolstoy takes work.  Cultivating aesthetic takes time.  But imbuing grace and culture and gentility (don't laugh; I'm no denizen of the worlds I admire) is the larger part of a real education. According to Tracy Lee Simmons, who says many of my favorite things, "Whatever intellectual feats a man might bring off, they were of scant value if he had not first achieved a goodness and tranquility of soul."

So I'm excited.  It was a good year.