Tag Archives: Philosophy

The First Day of Philosophy Class

bullshit

 

As some of you might already know, I’ve been teaching an elective philosophy class at my school for the past 8 years. We meet every Wednesday afternoon for 8 weeks. After that, the students choose another elective and I get to teach a whole new group. Our first class of the year this past Wednesday reminded me why I chose to teach philosophy to high school students in the first place.

I came in that morning to find the roster for the philosophy class in my mailbox. Not surprisingly, my eyes started to scan down the list of students to get an idea of the type of class I could expect. Only students in grades 10 through 12 get electives (that is to say, no freshmen), so chances are I would know most of the names even if I never previously taught them. It was a relatively huge roster. There were exactly 30 students listed even though our electives usually top out at around 20. Out of those 30, 25 of them were students to whom I had taught history in years past. At least I would not have to spend too much time introducing myself to them and catching them up on class rules. It was a class I was looking forward to meeting.

What was especially heartening was the fact that many sophomores I taught last year as freshmen had signed up. This was the first time in their high school careers that they had the opportunity to choose an elective and they chose philosophy. What did that mean? I was probably going to start to find out once class started.

The bell rang and they started filing into the room. At this point it would be my usual practice to direct the kids to take seats towards the front. I did not even bother this time because practically every chair in the house was filled before the late bell rang. There was a thought question on the board for them to answer: “what do you think philosophy is?” There were many great answers that I listed on the blackboard. As we wound up this initial discussion, I noticed a look of disappointment on some of their faces when I informed them that the point of philosophy was to ask better questions. I told them that if they left this class thinking they know the meaning of life, then they are doing philosophy incorrectly. Instead, they should leave here knowing which questions are appropriate to ask. This bit of advice seemed like a bitter pill for some of them to swallow.

They started to perk up however when I told them that our first lesson of the year was going to be about how to make people look stupid in a debate. That is how I sold it to them anyway. This is my usual springboard into the lesson on how to construct an argument. We took a tour through the usual introduction to philosophy fare: syllogisms, premises, conclusions, deductive reasoning, inductive reasoning and straw men. While all of these are powerful concepts, they seemed to really take to the discussion we had on the difference between lies and truth.

One of the syllogisms we studied was: “Paul never lies when he speaks. Paul is speaking. Therefore, Paul is speaking the truth.” I asked them whether or not this was a valid argument. Practically everyone agreed that it was. As they thought the case was closed and sought to move on to the next syllogism, they sensed that I was not totally buying their answer. I asked them why this argument might not be valid. When a senior raised her hand to say “just because Paul is not lying does not mean he is speaking the truth”, one of those “a-ha moments” on which we teachers thrive rippled through the room.

It was at this point that we started discussing truth. Can there not be a rather large space between lies and truth? What is more: is this not the space that most of us (and the rest of the world) occupy? This was their first encounter with philosophical grey area. I informed them that the philosopher Harry G. Frankfort might call this space “bullshit“, a tidbit that never fails to cause chuckles. We went through a few daily examples of bullshit that they would know well, like commercial advertising or when teenagers try to deceive adults. Many knowing grins lit up across the room once the kids heard an example of bullshit with which they were able to identify. If we had time we could have even discussed the quote from the great diplomat Talleyrand (one of my favorite historical figures) that “speech was given to man to disguise his thoughts.”

Towards the end of the period we started discussing hidden premises. Most arguments they will encounter in real life are not going to be cut-and-dry syllogisms. People are always injecting their biases into things, and these biases are their assumptions. They seemed to be taken with the idea that they might be able to learn how to recognize someone else’s assumptions. However, what I really believe they learned was the fact that assumptions existed. The bell rang just as we were going to go in depth on the matter. I suppose this is what next week will be for.

I believe this particular class taught me a thing or two about today’s teenagers. They seemed to genuinely appreciate the discussion on bullshit and hidden assumptions. This can probably partially be explained by the fact that they recognized themselves and their own thought patterns in these things. However, I think they also recognized that the world around them, the world of school, pop culture and Facebook, is laden with hidden biases and outright bullshit. They have a general sense that they are being lied to but have not been able to really pinpoint how. By the end of the class, I believe they started to stir with the idea that they might end up being able to expose the world around them for what it really is.

These students have spent most of their school careers in Bloomberg’s Department of Education. They have been bombarded with standardized exams and sanitized curricula for most of their lives. School to them has been a series of fill-in-the-bubble exercises. They have to fill the bubbles in on exams. They have to carry out the appropriate work units in their classes to get good grades. If their grades are lacking, they just ask for extra work units that will help them fill in the gaps until they reach a number with which they are satisfied. On their own time (and even on school time), they fill in the bubbles on their Facebook profiles, Twitter updates and text messages.

All of their time has been spent on exhibiting the appropriate outward behavior. They have learned that certain types of behaviors yield them certain rewards, like good grades or enhanced social status. The obsession with “achievement” and “success” in Bloomberg’s DOE is echoed in society at large. People only seem to care about what they do. However, philosophy reveals to them what they are.

Most importantly, philosophy is one of the only times in their school careers when they will honestly be challenged to question everything. Why are you required to do certain things? Why do you believe you have to do certain things? Why do you believe school/society wants you to do these things but not other things? It is an exercise in critical thinking. It is an exercise that is dangerous to the people in charge.

The overwhelming turnout for this first philosophy class of the year was a sign. Their general enthusiasm on the first day of philosophical discussion was a sign. How they received the ideas of bullshit and biases was a sign. Our children thirst for something higher. They thirst for it because they have never been encouraged to explore it. The school system is doing a bang-up job of extracting the curiosity, the thinking, the discovery and the fun out of learning. The reformers of the world want our children to be disengaged students because disengaged students become disengaged citizens. They are being molded into non-citizens.

By the end of this philosophy course, I hope the kids are able to discover why questioning is much more valuable than answering. Perhaps instilling within them a knack for questioning now will keep a fire burning within them that no amount of bubble-in exams can extinguish.

A WORD OF CAUTION TO THE ACTIVISTS

debs

Eugene Debs did not have convictions. He had beliefs and was convicted for them.

Leftist groups in the United States have traditionally descended into cannibalism. At first, they start off well enough, find a unified vision and make some progress. Socialists did pretty well as third party candidates at the start of the 20th century, for example, by getting the votes of unions and other, ideologically less rigid, groups.

But making progress requires compromise; and compromise requires pragmatism. At a certain point, the most convinced ideologues (the Marxists, communists, anarchists, rigid socialists, extreme feminists, culture talkers, racial thinkers, etc.) draw their own lines in the sand and say “enough! No more compromise! After all, aren’t we fighting against a system of so-called ‘compromise’ as it is?” They then turn on each other, each accusing the other of being too soft, too ideologically impure, too (God forbid) conservative. Then the  flesh-eating begins.

There is a reason why ideologues like Lenin were able to take control of Russia at the start of the 20th century. They brought rigid, autocratic ideology to a country accustomed to autocracy. When the Bolsheviks started their purges of the bourgeois class, they were building on a tradition of autocratic purges Russians knew well, not the least of which were the frequent pogroms against Jews. Strict loyalty to the Romanov family and the Orthodox Church that served as its handmaiden was replaced by strict loyalty to the party. Dialectical materialism became the church. Pogroms against Jews were replaced by pogroms against monarchists and capitalists.

Do not be too enthralled with your own convictions. A conviction is merely a belief that has been allowed to fossilize. It is like going fishing, catching one fish and holding on to that one fish forever without ever bothering to fish again. In order to strengthen, broaden and deepen one’s beliefs, one must constantly cast their net into the pond to ensure a steady stream of fresh fish. If not, you starve and those who have done the messy work of fishing will grow fat and prosperous.

Convictions are dead fish, dead beliefs.

The real world, especially the world we call the United States (and double triple especially the world of New York City), is messy. It requires a messy mind, one teeming with all types of fresh fish, to keep up. Quite frankly, people so steeped in their convictions scare me. They are of the same ilk as religious fundamentalists, no matter what the religion is.

Now, this does not mean that all beliefs should be malleable so that one becomes a jellyfish with no core. What it means is that we must be open to having ALL of our beliefs, even our most cherished beliefs, reexamined and challenged from within. You might reexamine your beliefs and find that you believe them now stronger than you ever did before.

Who ever reexamines their convictions? Wouldn’t they cease to be convictions the moment one reexamines them?

Convictions are not open to reexamination. That is what makes them dangerous. Convictions, at their core, are enemies of freedom.

A word of caution to the activists.

The Secularist’s Rise

Atheists gathered this past Saturday in Washington, D.C. for what they called the “Reason Rally”. The purpose, according to a quote in this article, was to show America that “we are here and we will never be silenced again.”

An estimated 30,000 people of diverse backgrounds showed up. It was a heartening turnout for what is becoming a necessary cause in the United States of America.

Since the end of the 1960s, a Christian fundamentalist movement has been afoot. There were wide swaths of the population who were disoriented by the changes of that era. Technology, morals, politics and everything else were undergoing rapid change. Religion provided solid answers and stability amidst these changes.

The simplicity of fundamentalism made it a great vehicle for political organization. We started seeing signs of this with the election of Jimmy Carter, who wore his religion on his sleeve and even in his policies. Through televangelism, Jesus camps and church organization, southern-style Christianity became a form of political activism. The Culture Wars of the early 1990s provided the fertile ground needed to turn the Democrats out of Congress and elect a crop of very Christian Republicans. This bore fruit later with Clinton’s impeachment and the election of George W. Bush.

Since this time, we have seen attacks on women’s reproductive rights, homosexuals and Muslims. We have taken to seriously debating the merits between creation and evolution, as if they occupy the same intellectual plane. We have become a country where policies inspired by a small but organized group of Christian fundamentalists impact the lives of everyone around the world.

Around this trend is the rise of a counter narrative of American history that portrays the Founding Fathers as intolerant Christians. Although the Founders talked a lot about God, it was the God of Enlightenment Deism that ruled their day. It was a mechanical God, a “watchmaker” as Isaac Newton would say, under which they lived. It was a God that had created the universe and then walked away, allowing humans to use their brains to divine the underlying laws of nature.

So, it is necessary that the secularists gathered in the nation’s capital over the weekend. Unbelievers need to show that they can be a political force as well. Leaders need to see that there is a base of very organized, very vocal Americans who feel attacked by religious fundamentalism.

At the same time, secularists need to take care of not falling into the trap of the fundamentalists. It is very easy to be dogmatic. My own views on religion are complex. I am more agnostic than anything. There is a danger of falling into dogma whether you are a believer or unbeliever. What the secularists are fighting against is the intolerance, the demagoguery, the arrogance of Christian fundamentalism. We should be careful not to replace religious dogmatism with secular dogmatism.

What we should be fighting for is a free and open society. There are atheists who are just as demeaning as fundamentalists. Faith in science can be just as severe and unyielding as faith in God. Our aim should not to be severe, but to be free.

Noam Chomsky on Anarchy

Anarchy means a lack of government. This has been construed by many to mean that we should smash the state immediately.

Amazingly, many people who believe this cite Noam Chomsky as one of their muses. If you listen to Chomsky here, you see very clearly that anarchy, classic anarchy, is much more sophisticated than just abolishing the state.

The reason is obvious: getting rid of the state as it stands now means giving ourselves over to corporations. Getting rid of the state is exactly what libertarians and certain Republicans want to do. They want to make government so irrelevant that there is nothing but unaccountable, corporate power.

The greatest American anarchist was Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson believed that a nation of equal landowners educated in public schools would have the resources and brain power necessary to live harmoniously together. After a few generations of homesteading and educating, there would be no need for the state at all. It would merely whither away as an irrelevancy.

This was the big philosophical reason behind Jefferson’s push for the Louisiana Purchase. He believed it would give the country enough land to divide up equally between citizens. It also explains Jefferson’s support for public education. He was trying to lay the groundwork for anarchy.

Or is this communism? Maybe communism and anarchy go hand-in-hand here, where one is the condition of the other. If this is the case, then it would seem as if socialism would mark a preparation period for this anarcho-communist utopia.

Anyway, I think this is sort of what Chomsky is saying in this video.

Rants From The Philosophy Classroom

Today was the weekly philosophy class. It got off to a rough start. The AP came in just as the late bell was ringing to inquire after some paperwork I had failed to hand in. This ate up a good 5 minutes of class time. I did not even get enough time to write the do now on the board, leaving my class to sit there twiddling their thumbs during the course of my conversation.

On top of that, there was a trip that took a whole bunch of kids out of the building. I had a rump of about 15 students who certainly resented being there while their school chums were off gallivanting around the big city. The fact that it was raining did not help matters either. I do not know what it is about rain that depresses the mood of a class. Would they rather be outside?

Once the AP left, I wrote the do now on the board. It took a lot of prodding and cajoling to get the class to work. It is an elective class worth a quarter of a credit. A high grade is usually a fait accompli for anyone that shows up the required once a week. Needless to say, the students did not have much motivation to tackle the thought question I wrote on the board.

One of the great things about teaching is that a class can start off badly and end off fantastic. That is what happened today.

I wrote a series of four phrases on the board that each stated something about human nature. They were required to either agree or disagree with each statement and give their reasoning. We had a discussion about the statement where the students brought up some very good points. Then I asked them the big question:

What do each of these statements have in common?

It was a strange question because these statements did not seem to have anything in common at all. They each related to totally different aspects of human nature.

“They all talk about what people do?”

“Good. Now, how are they similar in the way they do this?”

I cannot remember the exact responses, but a few students said things that almost hit the mark. In order to get them there, I wrote the word “laws” on the board. I explained that we mean laws not as in legislation, but as in natural laws like the laws of physics. I know most of these kids. Many of them are AP students and they can handle this stuff.

So then a student says “they all treat people the same.”

“Exactly”

I wrote the term “existentialism” on the board and then the name Fyodor Dostoyevsky. I explained a little of who he was and then wrote the title of one of his books “Notes from the Underground.”

“In Notes from the Underground, Dostoyevsky talks about treating people like piano keys. What do you think he meant by that?”

Another great round of responses ensued. By this point, I think we had redeemed ourselves from our rough start.

The turning point came when I asked, why do you think people make these laws of human nature? Why do they try to make people into piano keys?

The response of the day is usually the response you do not expect. That is what happened when a student raised her hand and said: “It makes it easier to control people.”

WOW!

Before I go on, let me just point out that my goal in every lesson is to talk as little as possible. I ask questions and then elicit responses. After each response, I will ask follow up questions and the lesson flows seamlessly from there. It does not always happen this smoothly but that is always the goal.

Then again, I am a history teacher. I think it is in the genetic code of a history teacher to go on rants. Sometimes I get into rant mode and it is really tough to stop me. Over the years, some of my rants have become legendary. Even the students that tend to look down the entire period in order to escape notice usually follow me with wide eyes when I go a-ranting. They seem to enjoy the passion, not to mention the momentary break from note-taking.

So that thoughtful response about controlling people started a rant brewing inside of me.

Paraphrase: “This is what some subjects try to do. Look at economics. It boils things down into equations and numbers. It takes human activity and reduces it to calculation.

“You heard about the newspapers printing up the test scores? (I know they were “value added” scores, but I did not want to get bogged down in explaining what that means. There is a difference between a rant and a tangent.) That assumes that you can judge what students learn and what teachers teach by a test.

“What if you were tired on test day? What if you plain did not want to take the test or read through a bunch of questions? Do you think what you know should be judged from a test?”

It was a rhetorical question of course.

“So they just think that test scores are everything?”, someone asked.

“Exactly. And then people open up the newspapers and assume that these numbers have any bearing on reality. In America, that is how things work. The media says something and people believe it. There is no digging deeper or questioning.”

“There was a German-Jewish philosopher named Hannah Arendt. She had to leave Germany because Hitler had started mistreating Jews at the time. She settled in America and started writing. A few years later, a Nazi named Adolf Eichmann was put on trial in Jerusalem and she was sent to cover it. Her articles were collected into a book Eichmann in Jerusalem.”

Students started writing the name of the author and book despite the fact that it was an aside, not part of the notes.

“She describes Eichmann as a thoroughly ordinary man. He honestly sat there during the trial and believed he did nothing wrong. (I should have mentioned that he actually thought he was a friend to the Jews, but I forgot.) His defense was that he did not kill anybody or order the killing of anybody. He merely authorized trains to take Jews to the concentration camps.

“It was his job.

“Hannah Arendt described this as the ‘banality of evil’. Banality means ordinary or boring. Evil does not usually take the form of a creature with a pitchfork. Instead, it is found in the ordinary actions of ordinary people.

“Eichmann was inoculated from any moral compunction because it was ‘his job’. As far as he was concerned, he was just following orders and there was nothing he could do. Even though all he did was sign papers authorizing the transfer of Jews to death camps, those actions had dire consequences. His thoughtless, mechanical decisions helped cause the murder of millions of innocent people.

“This is what we have today. Imagine someone who loses their job and cannot pay their mortgage. The bank eventually comes and forecloses on them, throwing a family out into the street. Of course, whoever signed the foreclosure is just doing their ‘job’. After all, if you don’t pay your mortgage, the bank has a ‘right’ to evict you. However, as the result of someone doing their ‘job’, someone’s life is destroyed.

“It is this kind of thoughtless, amoral stuff that happens all of the time in society. Same thing with the banking crisis. Bankers were just doing their ‘job’ pushing crap loans and other financial services that they knew to be bunk. That was not their concern. They were not technically breaking the law, and their job is to make money for the bank. In the end, their actions ended up pushing the economy off of a cliff. That is the banality of evil.”

After class, one student asks me, “so why do you give tests?”

Damn

“Because I have to. But I try to make up for it in other ways. Most importantly, at least I recognize that it is part of my own form of banal evil.”

Will this pedagogically unsound rant show up in my “data”? Who cares.

Will this rant help make a difference in the lives of some students in the long run?

In this data-driven age, it is more important than ever to prevent our kids and teachers from becoming piano keys.

Great Teachers Series: Friedrich Nietzsche

1. Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 – 1900)

Nietzsche worship in this day and age is somewhat hackneyed. Everyone quotes him, everyone thinks they know him, everyone thinks they see themselves in his writing. Many of them violate the first rule of being a Nietzsche disciple: there are no Nietzsche disciples. Another paean to Nietzsche runs the risk of adding to this noise. By asserting that Nietzsche is the hub of the wheel of my thought process, I run the risk of discipleship myself. These are chances I am willing to take.

His life was short, even by the standards of his age. It was even shorter when we consider the fact he spent his last decade in a state of vegetative madness. There are those who ascribe his mental breakdown to the volatility of his ideas, but it was most likely the syphilis he had contracted as a youngster serving in the Franco-Prussian War. He was an incredibly prolific writer in the 40 or so lucid years he had, writing a string of books that would eventually turn western philosophy on its head.

Yet very few people took notice of his genius during his lifetime. He would have probably went unnoticed altogether if not for the efforts of his sister. Nietzsche had a rocky relationship with his sister, taking issue with the fact that she married a man that embodied everything he hated about German society at the time: a German nationalist and raving anti-Semite. Once Nietzsche was dead, his sister ransacked all of his unfinished writings, added in sections of her own and packaged it as an apology for German imperialism and racial cruelty entitled The Will to Power, published in her brother’s name. Her self-serving act forever put a black eye on Nietzsche’s reputation.

The Will to Power was such a hit in German nationalist circles that Adolf Hitler went on to proclaim Nietzsche a national hero. The recognition that eluded Nietzsche in his lifetime was finally found with the very people that most disgusted him. Throughout the years of the Third Reich and beyond, Nietzsche would be known as the Nazi philosopher. His name would be associated with a justification for cruelty, racism and war. It is an image of Nietzsche that has never been totally shaken. We see this when people celebrate his famous line “whatever does not kill us makes us stronger”, without fully appreciating the rest of what Nietzsche truly stood for.

That would change when a German-Jewish philosopher named Walter Kaufmann started rehabilitating Nietzsche’s reputation. He cut through decades of self-serving Nietzsche interpretation in order to get at the true thinker. For the first time, Nietzsche would have a fair hearing.

Nietzsche’s style lends itself to misinterpretation. His best books are written in aphorism, or individual paragraphs and sections that each deal with a specific topic. Succeeding aphorisms usually relate to each other, the goal being to weave a tapestry of ideas that somehow hang together. Some aphorisms deal with topics head-on, usually with many italics and exclamation points that enable the reader to envision Nietzsche standing there gesticulating wildly . Others are pure metaphor, indirectly making a point about one thing when he is usually talking about another. All of it is great writing. Rarely in the world of philosophy does one encounter someone who unites profound thinking and artistic writing in the manner of Nietzsche.

The way Nietzsche laid out his books is a window into his thought. He needed to use the aphorism style because it allowed him to approach the same topic from different directions. If at times he seemed to contradict himself, it is because he did. Nietzsche did not shy away from contradiction. In fact, contradiction lies at the heart of his thought.

Humans are irrational creatures. Their thoughts and feelings are in constant flux, making contradiction the natural human condition. For millennia, philosophers had tried to pound these contradictions into straight arrows. They erected systems of thought based upon rational reason. The validity of these systems was measured by their internal consistency. For Nietzsche, what these philosophers were doing was running from their own humanity. Their elegant systems were expressions of fear of the uncertainty of human beings. By trying to be inhuman through building these awe-inspiring systems of thought, philosophers had merely betrayed their very human fears. This is part of what Nietzsche meant by the title of one of his first books, Human, All Too Human.

As he said many times, Nietzsche was not a system builder. He was a “ploughshare”, destroying old systems in order to clear the way for something new. What this new thing would be was for future generations to decide. His role was to help point the way. This would be what gave rise to the idea of Nietzsche’s “overman”. Hitler perverted the overman to mean the Aryan superman found in Nazi propaganda. In reality, the overman was the philosopher of tomorrow, irreverent towards the systems of the past, totally in tune with his own humanity and completely unafraid to set his course by his own standards. The overman would complete what Nietzsche referred to as the “revaluation of all values” that had begun during his age.

Too much has been made of the overman by Nietzsche fanatics. Much like the role of communism in the philosophy of Karl Marx, the overman was merely a vague end point of a rich cultural critique. By interpreting and misinterpreting that end point, they ignore the path that leads there.

Europe of the late 1800s was in a state of cultural flux. The institution that had given order to society and thought for thousands of years, Christianity, was done. In its place was a modern world defined by national rivalries, commercial pursuits and industrial production. This change is to what Nietzsche was referring when he said in the Gay Science “God is dead and we have killed him.” Through a new configuration of the western world that celebrated modernity, God had been left behind.

“God is dead” is not a celebration, merely an observation. While it is clear that Nietzsche believed the Judeo-Christian tradition celebrated a “slave morality”, he was not all too happy about the modernity that had replaced it. The west had unchained itself from God and now found itself twirling in an oblivion of nationalism, capitalism, industrialism, democracy and socialism. All of these things were competing with each other to be the new zeitgeist. None of them were able to provide the deep meaning that God had once promised. The west was on the verge of nihilism, hence the need for an overman.

One of the most interesting parts of Nietzsche’s variegated philosophy was his attitude towards science. He fully appreciated the fact that science could provide answers that God was never able to provide. It was one of the driving forces of our modern age, if not the dominant force. However, he believed that the scientist’s claims to objectivity were bloated. To Nietzsche, science required every bit as much faith as religion. Scientists had faith in the truth of objective facts, that these facts can be discerned through empirical research and that the scientific method was the way to conduct this research. Science smacked of all of those other attempts by philosophers throughout history to pound the contradictions of human experience into a straight, logical arrow. Science was another human, all too human attempt to run from our own humanity.

This points the way to Nietzsche’s view on truth. Most philosophers, indeed most people, assumed that there was a universal truth that existed independent of human beings. Not only does this truth exist, but it is knowable by us. For Nietzsche, this was an arrogant claim for people to make. The concept of truth was just that, a concept, and one that had been brought into the world by human beings. If there is such a thing as truth, our perspective would be too small and ant-like to ever see the entire thing. However, it is possible that truth does not exist at all, that the world outside of us (if one exists) is filtered through our human brains and learned cultural handles. Truth is untenable because we can never get past our own biases about what truth is supposed to be. Those biases shape our expectations and, therefore, shape how we see the “truth”.

This is why Nietzsche needed the aphoristic style. If we can never get at truth, then the next best thing would be to look at the world through several different perspectives. What might seem like a bunch of contradictory ideas is really a noble pursuit to understand as much as we can about the world. This is what might be deemed as “relativism”, or the idea that there is no one right way to look at things, just a series of perspectives that all have something different to say.

Nietzsche is the type of thinker that cannot help but enthrall. Whether you end up hating or loving his philosophy (there is no in between), Nietzsche is sure to have an impact on the way you think. For me, Nietzsche teaches to constantly be skeptical not only of those ideas that seem too good to be true, but of my own ideas. Nietzsche helps prevent me from getting too carried away by my own self-righteousness. He warns that the things that I am totally convinced of, including all of my deepest assumptions, can be wrong. Not only might they be wrong, but they might be oppressive because they preclude me from reflecting honestly.

After I had blown through Nieztsche’s works, I felt my mind become a vast ocean. I was less inclined to dogma, more inclined to tolerance and more likely to admit intellectual laziness or dishonesty within myself. Nietzsche taught me to embrace my humanity. As a human, I am naturally inclined to make mistakes. I am naturally inclined to have contradictions. Rather than beat myself up over these things, not to mention beat up others, they all must be embraced. This points the way to one of Nietzsche’s most powerful ideas: amor fati.

Amor fati means “love of fate”. Looking at the past, amor fati teaches us not to “cry over spilled milk”. Whatever is done is done. Rather than tear ourselves apart for the mistakes we have made, we must love them because they have shaped who we are today. Looking at the future, amor fati means accepting all that will befall us. Because we live in a human world of flux and contradiction, we can never know or have control over what will happen to us. We cannot even guarantee that we will make the best possible choices for ourselves when faced with new challenges. All we can do, according to Nietzsche, is be the “yes sayer”. It is an exhortation to embrace life for all of its thorns and warts. It is a humbling idea that helps us push through bad times and appreciate the good.

Part of amor fati and being a yes-sayer is the embracing of death. We cannot fight against death by expecting an afterlife or a supernatural reward. What we can do is ensure that we make the greatest possible impact when we are alive. For Nietzsche, all human life has the same drive. It is not the will to survive. It is the will to power. The will to power is a natural yearning to shape our surroundings. It is the discharge of our human spirit. The only way to cheat death is not through heaven or a fountain of youth, it is in having such a will to power when we are alive that we will be remembered after we are dead. All of the philosophers that had built systems of thought were discharging their will to power. They built a system in their own image in hopes that it would live forever. What they were really doing was carving their image on the face of eternity.

The greatest wills tend to die young. Just as the brightest stars tend to die relatively fast from burning up all of their fuel, the greatest humans tend to devour all of their energy quickly, pushing them into early graves. Nietzsche would not know how prophetic this idea would be for him. Losing his mind while still in his 40s and dying before he reached 60, Nietzsche certainly emitted enough energy to the world around him to warrant being remembered throughout history. Nietzsche’s life and death is a reminder to us to live by our passions and not be afraid to take risks.

There is nobody who can bring this home better than the man himself:

“My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it—all idealism is mendaciousness in the face of what is necessary—but love it.”

The Conscience of a (Real) Conservative

Erasmus writes In Praise of Folly

I am a conservative. My values are of a bygone era that we will perhaps never see again.

There was an era when, even if you did not support the President of the United States, you still accepted him as your president. I do not support President Obama. At the same time, I fully recognize that he is an American citizen and, as such, the rightful resident of the White House for better or worse. I am a conservative, not a Birther.

Political office was once seen as a public service. George Washington retired twice, first as general, then as president, because he believed his duty to his country had been served. He did not seek to aggrandize himself or his wallet in the private sector after he left office. There was no Halliburton to offer him a consulting job. I do not vote for the two parties because their ranks are filled with social-climbers, profiteers and shysters on the lookout for their next million.

The Founding Fathers never heard of corporations. They wrote the Constitution in an age when there were no other institutions large enough to compete with the authority of a vigorous federal government. Now we have corporations whose budgets, organizational skill and even coercive power rival that of Washington, D.C. Our federal government has yet to reckon with these upstarts, which is why the constitution needs an amendment that would limit their influence.

Once these corporations became a fixture in society, there was at least a semblance of loyalty to the people that worked for them. You might start at the bottom but, through sheer pluck, could work your way up the ladder. That loyalty would be repaid with Americans dedicating their entire lives to the corporation that sustained them. Their golden years would be secure through retirement plans and health packages, a final recognition that this person revolved their entire life, their entire sense of self, around one company.

But today, workers are berated as spoiled and lazy for expecting these things. Instead of loyalty, Americans now expect transience. They have seen their jobs move overseas or have been forced to take drastic cuts to their compensation under threat of moving their jobs overseas. As a replacement, we have the Walmart position in which people work long hours for the privilege of being perpetually poor. There is no retirement, only an interminable series of low-wage jobs until the end of life. The cold grave that offers respite is out of the price range of most families. Not even a comfortable death is assured.

True conservatives want these things back. If corporations are unwilling to take care of the people that slave for them, then the government must fill the void. This is not radical socialism. This is radical Americanism.

As a teacher, I believe in the quaint idea that students should learn something. My job is not to prepare kids for the 21st century. I do not even know what that means. Instead, students need the moral compass, the range of thought and the sheer knowledge to be able to create the 21st century themselves. This will not happen by making children tech savvy, or having them sit through hours of exams or teaching them that the only things worth knowing are the things that will make them a million dollars. As a conservative, I believe the teacher’s job is to transmit eternal values and challenge children to make those values better.

I do not think having children sit in groups so they can “reflect” is an exercise in democracy. I do not believe that giving children baby work under the guise of them being “visual” or “experiential” learners is sound “pedagogy”. I do not believe that nearly half the children in the United States have a “learning disability” and I certainly do not believe that shoving happy, sleepy or peppy pills down their throats will overcome these fictional disabilities. I think all of these things are labels that have been conjured up by an educational/psychological/pharmaceutical complex that has built an entire brand around “saving” children.

I am a teacher. There are things that I know that my students do not know. There is an entire world that they are too young to understand. My job is to help them understand it. This responsibility is too important to be abdicated to educational “experts” and Big Pharma, who would not be able to understand children if they were born with manuals. My teaching is informed by what my students tell me about themselves day in and day out over several years and decades. There is no substitute, no fast track, no magic recipe for being able to reach a child. I am a conservative. I still believe that, in order to know something, one must know it through extensive experience, whether it is a child or an academic subject. There is no way to deskill the teaching profession without utterly destroying it.

Yet, that does not stop haughty reformers from proclaiming that they know what is good for children. They think teaching is easy enough to be as computerized as ringing up an order at McDonald’s. That is what online learning is about. That is what the Khan Academy is about. None of the people that have birthed these supposed innovations were ever educators. I am a conservative. As such, I believe someone has to be knowledgeable about something before suggesting ways it can be improved upon.

I do not believe a teacher can be pixelated. Pixels cannot tell when a child has not eaten breakfast this morning or if a child had to pass through gang territory to get to school or if poverty has left a child with no home to speak of. Pixels are indifferent to children. Only in a radicalized age would people believe that it is acceptable for children, especially poor children, to have “teachers” that are totally indifferent to their humanity. We live in an age where the term humanistic education is unintelligible. There is nothing human or educational in what self-styled education reformers want.

Humanistic education is one of the most conservative things one can ever stand for. It is what Socrates, Jesus and Erasmus all dedicated their lives to. How many Khan Academy videos did their students sit through? How many smart board lessons did Socrates give to Plato? How many happy pills did the apostles take before they were able to sit through the Sermon on the Mount? What standardized exam was Erasmus ever evaluated on? I am a conservative. As such, I feel that each new “advance” for education reform is another way to remove children form their own humanity.

Inhumanity has been the guiding ethos of what has been deemed “progress” over the past 35 years. Politicians serve private interests, no longer the public good. Corporations treat the people who work for them like disposable garbage to be tossed away when used up, instead of human beings entitled to a lifetime of dignity. Education reforms aim to prepare children for this new age. Children become objects through constant testing, labeling and diagnosing. They become guinea pigs through constant prescriptions of new medicines. They become invisible in the virtual classroom and to their virtual teacher.

This is a new age of radicalism and revolution perpetrated by people in power. The true conservatives are the ones who refuse to give themselves over to the demands of this new age.