Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

I Am Your Child's Teacher

Last night all the parents of rising first-graders gathered at the school to meet The New Teacher. In the Waldorf pedagogy, a teacher starts with a first-grade class, and then remains the teacher of those students for the rest of their time in the lower school, through the eighth grade. In terms of having a teacher intimately familiar with his students, it's a very useful arrangement; everyone is spared the awkwardness of readjusting to each other from year to year, and so they can stay focused on the curriculum with a minimum of disruption over time. It also means that you've got a lot riding on one person in your child's education. So, when the parents are gathered together to meet The New Teacher for the first time, it's rather like an arranged marriage: "Hi there, we're going to be a major part of each others' lives for the better part of a decade."

It would be gauche to "review" the guy in a blog, so I won't get into details, but suffice it to say that I'm pleased and think he's going to work out fine. I will share a few things that struck me:
  • One parent asked, "What is your goal for the year? How will you know that you've succeeded with these kids?" He answered: "If, at the end of the year, these kids love school, then I've done my job." I thought that was a great answer, and one of the things that sets Waldorf schools apart from so many others. Nobody else gets this part right. Under the regimine of "No Child Left Behind," the public schools teach (if you can call it teaching) to a zombified objective standard; their only concern is to get as many kids over the lowest of bars as possible. Meanwhile, most private schools, nurtured on the overweening ambitions of rich parents for their children, teach at the other end of standardization: what matters most is testing high, high, high on the subject matter, accelerating growth beyond all nature standards. But Waldorf recognizes they have one, and only one, critical job at the beginning of the grades, which is to make the kids love learning. If they get that part right, everything else will fall into place naturally.
  • On several occasions, the teacher emphasized what we've heard before about Waldorf education: "Look, there's a reason we do things a certain way." As far as I can see, it's true: Waldorf education is, if nothing else, extremely self-conscious and deliberate. Every detail is thought out, and done for a specific reason. (It might be a wacky Steinerian reason, but still, an explicit reason.) I was reminded, yet again, of how rare it is to have institutions with real spine to them. The New Teacher was reminding us of this fact because he knows, eventually, he's going to be taking us to task for putting Ho-Hos in the lunch box or not letting the kids get enough rest, or whatever.
  • On the subject of media, especially television, he said: "Look, since you're paying for this education, I would hope that you wouldn't want to undo my work. And television will just blow away anything I might accomplish with these kids." Amen.

Friday, May 25, 2007

The Meaning of Now

When I wrote yesterday about judging one's life, I was coming at the whole question from a teleological perspective: that is, I was evaluating a whole life from the perspective of where you end up. It's the final end, or teleos, that matters, and everything else is judged by how it gets you there. From a traditional Christian perspective, that approach makes perfect sense: we are preparing for a final Judgement Day, and how things play out on that last day is supposed to have eternal consequences.

That is not, however, the only way to go about thinking about meaning. You could start evaluating meaning at the other end of time: the present moment. A rich tradition of mystics across ancient and modern traditions would assert that past and future are only projections of the mind, and that only the present moment has reality. In the context of that theology, the question of the meaning of one's life becomes very different. Instead of saying, "What's the goal? Where I'm I going?" the question changes to: "This is it. All I have and all I ever will have is right now. So . . . how do I feel about right now? Is this the life that I want? Am I the kind of person I want to be?" And, if you feel like your life ought to be different, you change it . . . right now.

This flip in meaning evaluation -- from "The End" to "The Present" -- was brilliantly captured in my very favorite episodes of Angel ("Reprise" and "Epiphany", Season Two). Angel, the vampire cursed with a soul, struggled for centuries to enough good to redeem himself of all the evil his vampire-self has caused. A sense of redemption continually eludes him, though. When a "senior partner" from the demonic law firm Wolfram and Hart visits from the "home office," Angel seizes the opportunity to go through the demon's portal. Clearly he wants to make a suicide run at the source of all evil, to use himself up completely in his fight against wickedness. But when he arrives at the "home office," he finds that he's . . . back home in Los Angeles. Evil, it turns out, is in the hearts of humanity, and no permanent victory is possible. In describing his "epiphany," Angel later says, in effect, "If there is no final victory, no end, then all that matters is the good that you do right now. And that good, no matter how small, is the most important thing in the universe."

Whether you accept the non-teleological theology or not, focusing on the present moment has a lot going for it. Rather than making grand speculations about the end of life and the end of time, the present moment has an existential simplicity that cuts through endless rationalization. You don't have to posit the meaning of capital-L Life to be able to discern what's better or worse in the present moment. Richard Rose called it "backing away from untruth" -- rather than presuming to know what the truth will ultimately look like and setting out to find it, we start where we're at and reject the less-true in favor of the more-true. Even if you believe in ultimate truth and ultimate ends, the best way to get there might be to pay attention to what's right in front of you.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Judged Good

I've been chewing on an existential question for the last few months, and have not made any serious headway on it. I'm not even sure it's a legitimate question, but it keeps popping up in my contemplations. The line of thinking goes something like this:
  1. In order to know what you should be doing right now, you should know what you want to ultimately achieve in your life. It's the whole Steven Covey, "start with the end in mind" principle: you can't pick a sensible direction if you don't know where you want to end up.
  2. In order to formulate a goal for one's entire life, you need to establish an absolute standard for what a good life would be. In other words, you need to know how you are going to judge a good life.
  3. What, then, is the proper standard for judging a good life? Ostensibly, this is the sort of question the Self Knowledge Symposium is supposed to help people answer, and it's precisely here that my theology starts to break down.

There are a couple ways to answer #3. The classic theistic response is surrender to a higher power: "I'll do whatever God wants me to do." That's a whole new can of worms, with lots of underlying assumptions to root out:

  • For many, that answer also entails: "...because then God will love me and reward me eternally for my faithfulness." And I'm a little sketchy about the whole "eternal rewards" thing. If there is anything remotely like an afterlife, I don't think it's an everlasting, fully funded retirement.
  • It also assumes that God has something specific for you to do, apart from your own dreams and desires. It is entirely possible that you could ask God, and he would say, "I dunno . . . what do you want to do? What would make you happy?" If that seems implausible, consider the fact that this is exactly the position most earthly parents take. Would a heavenly father wish anything different?

So . . . if you decide that there is no judging God in heaven (either because there is no personified God to begin with, or because He's just not the judging type), how then will you formulate your life mission? Now you are thrown back on your own resources to answer the question. And that's a mess to sort out as well:

  • Your desires and aspirations are a conflicting mess. The whole reason you wanted a mission was to organize your desires into something consistent and sensible.
  • You could reduce all your desires and aspirations to, as your parents say, "whatever makes you happy." But that seems to resolve to a blunt sort of hedonism: "whatever makes you feel good." And that seems like a lousy, very unreflective standard upon which to base one's life. That approach defines self-centeredness, which feels like a dead end.

Comments are welcome. I haven't completely finished all the different lines of thought I have on this, but this is the basic shape.


Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Oligarchy of the interested

Kenny makes a good point about democratic systems of government: only a minority of people are really qualified to participate. Or, as the Onion put it in a recent headline: "38 percent of people not actually entitled to their opinion." And I, like Kenny, put myself in the category of the unqualified, at least for the vast majority of local elections and many national issues as well.

Unfortunately, it's very easy to go from that insight straight on to the sort of snooty, the-intellectual-elite-know-best kind of attitude that Al Gore and many New England-educated blueblood blue-state progressives evince. Underneath Gore's plea for a more reasoned government, I hear an intellectual's arrogant frustration: "Fools! Everything would go so much better if you just acknowledged that I'm right."

The weird thing is, in spite of the seeming collective stupidity of so many people, massive amounts of useful information can be extracted from collective opinions. For instance, predictive markets that allow people to wager on the outcomes of elections are incredibly accurate at predicting the outcomes. And free financial markets have worked for decades on the assumption that the market as a whole is going to be smarter than any single individual. Markets are messy and they are often wrong, but they seem to be pretty good at handling all kinds of complex calculations. So maybe the same principles can be applied to political decisions, as well. Any one of us might be pretty stupid, but collectively we may manage to make reasonably good policy.


Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Revenge of the Nerd

In an excerpt from his forthcoming book, Al Gore bemoans the diminishing role of reason in public discourse. "Why do reason, logic and truth seem to play a sharply diminished role in the way America now makes important decisions?" he intones seriously.

Ok, Al, if you just stopped at "reason playing little role in decision-making," I would have been right there with you. You're right: a population that spends most of it's free time watching American Idol is not likely to be a hotbed of intellectual debate. But the moment you say "sharply diminished," I just had to bust out laughing.

Sharply diminished from what? Perhaps you thought you and Bill and epitomized rule-by-policy-wonk -- government by the smart. Perhaps you flattered yourself by thinking that you shared the essential ingredient of success with Clinton, which was being really smart. But that's where reason has actually clouded your vision. You saw William Jefferson Clinton, voracious reader of white papers. We saw Slick Willy -- a creature of charisma, for whom intelligence was merely a tool for power and pleasure, and definitely not a being dedicated to "the truth."

No, we didn't have more rational policy and reasoned debate back then. There never was a Golden Age of civil debate, even if you go all the way back to ancient Athens. Read the newspapers of century ago; the invective was more furious, the slanders more vile, the demagogery more numb-skulled than even today. Even Jesus was sold out by the mob . . . so why should you be surprised, if things are no better now?

Nor has the populace at large changed that much, either, for all of our television sets. Television was merely quantitative -- not qualitative -- advancement in mind-numbing technology. Before television, we had booze, and cards, and dice, and burlesque shows, and many other methods of pleasantly stifling the activity of our neurons. You needn't lecture me on the evils of television -- believe me, Al, I'm with you on that one -- but don't for a moment presume that, if you took away their televisions and gave them all blogs, you would have a nation of philosopher kings.

And don't think I'm putting down the intellect, Al. I'm a nerd, too. I believe in brain-power. I want to believe that the geek will inherit the earth. But that is not human nature, Al. Go back and read your Hume: reason is the handmaid of emotion, and not the other way around. Or, as Augie Turak puts it in more modern language: "Intellect has no oomph." People might be persuaded by intellect, but they are not motivated by intellect. Motivation is a phenomena of the imagination, desires and emotions . . . and politics is ultimate game of mass-motivation. Do not be deceived by raw intelligence, or the lack thereof. Political power always belonged to those who were long on conviction and brief on their talking points. Reagan was the "three-by-five card President" . . . and Clinton was the stay-on-message candidate who forsook analysis for "It's the economy, stupid."


Monday, May 21, 2007

Flushed Away

Flushed Away embodies the battle for animation's soul. The film has two parents: Aardman, the astoundingly clever creators of Wallace & Gromit who demonstrated the power of strong story-telling and sophisticated wit a decade before Pixar even existed; and DreamWorks, the also-ran of animation that produces four or five forgettable, regretable features for every Shrek. Flushed Away is every bit as entertaining as any of Aardman's previous features, and yet sadly shows signs of both legacies.

I can only imagine how the conversations might have gone with the producers:

Aardman: "Ok, so then, the stove falls through the floor, and behind it is a cockroach, and he has a pipe in his mouth and he's reading Kafka's Metamorphesis, and he says, 'A new stove would be nice.' "
DreamWorks: ". . . I don't get it."
Aardman: "Well, you know . . . Metamorphesis . . . cockroaches . . . "
DreamWorks: "Seems a little weak. Why don't we have one of the kids hit Roddy in the nuts with a soccer ball?"
Aardman: "You mean . . . a football?"
DreamWorks: "Whatever. But before that, Roddy falls off the drain pipe and lands on his nuts on a drainpipe . . . and then, slides off of that, lands on another drain pipe on his nuts, slides off of that and lands on a spoon handle on his nuts, and then finally hits the ground and groans."
Aardman: "..."
DreamWorks: "You can still do your cockroach thing. Just keep hitting the rats in the nuts."

Clearly DreamWorks felt compelled to foul out to a PG rating (for "crude humor and strong language") for fear that media-drenched ten-year-olds couldn't enjoy anything remotely subtle. Or perhaps their notion of animated humor really is limited to the bathroom variety, sprinkled with heavy-handed pop-culture references.

And yet, over all, the spirit of Aardman prevailed. Thank God they stuck to their British roots, using real British talent (Kate Winslet and Hugh Jackman), a London setting, and British humor (including the traditional digs at the French and, suprisingly, ugly Americans). One sequence with a frog mime and a cell phone left me gasping for breath, it was so incredibly original. I will gladly tolerate the belches and farts and pratfalls to get to such marvelously clever payoffs.


Sunday, May 20, 2007

Trust, integrity, and higher education

Time Magazine described the new high-tech means students use to plagiarize essays for their assignments (e.g. affordabletermpapers.com) and the counter-measures that universities are using to suss out the cheaters (e.g. turnitin.com). Some students have objected to their own papers being added to turnitin.com's massive database of term papers that it uses to identify non-original work, claiming their intellectual property is being scooped up without their consent. Why, they ask, should some for-profit company make money off their work? Some professors, too, were skeptical about pursuing draconian measures to catch cheaters, fearing it might actually undermine the honor code spirit that insists and expects ethical behavior from its students.

Two questions arise from this debate: can high-tech anti-cheating measures be taken (is it technically and legally possible), and should they be taken (is it morally correct and realistically advisable to do so)? I hope the answer to both is obvious.

As far as the legal case goes . . . those students are dreaming if they think they can squeeze concessions from turnitin.com. No expectation of copyright control ever existed before in the schools, so it's useless to pretend it does now. Reading a text in order to identify possible plagiarism is going to be way, waaaay inside the bounds of "fair use" in copyright law, anyway. Any school that wants to cover its butt can simply make the non-expectation explicit: "When you turn in your papers, you give us the right to share it with whomever we please to verify it's originality." Case closed. If students still feel like they want to opt out of such a system, let them vote with their feet: transfer to a school that doesn't use the systems. Or, perhaps, let them come up with their own alternative for verifying the originality of their papers -- like, say, writing them in a controlled test room . . . and paying the fees of the proctors who administer them. I have a feeling all the high-minded objections from students would vanish if they were actually asked to pay to defend their precious term papers.

Should we try to catch the cheaters? This is a slam-dunk for reducto ad absurdum. If you think that rigorously pursuing cheaters will compromise a spirit of integrity, we might as well close down all the police stations, disban the SEC, and dismantel all the accounting firms' audit departments while we're at it. A presumption of individual innocence does not mean a presumption of collective innocence. We know that over half of students admit to cheating at some point in their college careers. Anyone who wants to defend the validity of their grades should be willing to accept a level of oversight . . . especially if it's as non-invasive as an automated plagiarism test. It's like the sleazy suspect on Law & Order who refuses to provide a DNA sample -- they claim all kinds of high-falutin' moral reasons for refusing an invasion of privacy . . . while the police, and the entire audience with them, says, "Uh-huh. Something to hide, huh?"

What I find even more sad is that people don't see how terribly important these ethical matters are. Academic misconduct is not a small matter. Look around at all the countries were free civil society has completely broken down: Iraq, third-world Africa, etc. The common denominator in all these places is corruption. Once corruption becomes commonplace and accepted as a part of life, you are condemned to world in which there is no trust at all . . . which is to say, a world in which all collective effort for collective good is utterly doomed. Is this what we want to school our children in? That success can be bought? That all that matters is what you can get away with? That personal success and fortune matters more than personal integrity and goodness? If corruption (and that's what we should call it -- not cheating, not misconduct, but corruption) prevails in the university, we will have planted the seeds of our society's destruction.

I also think, coincidentally, that this whole debate only exposes the arbitrary, unrealistic, totally bogus nature of most school assignments and tests. I heard of a Duke business school teacher who told his students: "In my classes, anyone who is asked for help, and refuses to give it, is a cheater." The dean of the school heard of this policy, rushed to his office and said, "We can't have this. What kind of a world do think this would be if everybody went around helping everyone else?" (Beat . . . .wait for laughter.) If, instead of working on individual essays that are canned and arbitrary, students worked collectively on real-life problems with real-world benefactors, the problem of cheating would not be so much of an issue.