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.

Great Teachers Series: Michel Foucault

2. Michel Foucault (1926-1984)

Michel Foucault is my avatar. He is the bald-headed man you see when you visit this site and the Facebook page that goes with it. There are many reasons why I chose Foucault, reasons that should be clear by the end of this post. Years ago, as I was sitting in the teacher’s lounge during a relatively light day, I started reading my copy of Madness and Civilization on which I had been working for a while. Before I could get into a sentence, a young teacher sarcastically said “oooh, you’re reading Foucault”, as if I had taken out the book to impress her. I did not bother to explain that Foucault’s work was the type of stuff I just read for pleasure, the same way people read Twilight or Harry Potter.

I chose Foucault as my avatar just in case she, or people like her, are reading this blog. It is an indication of who I am, or at least strive to be. It is also a foreshadowing of the types of ideas one will encounter upon reading the posts here. That is because Foucault’s dense historical works have worn deep channels in my brain. Foucault represented to me the final frontier. He brought my two favorite intellectual pursuits, history and philosophy, together in a way no other thinker could begin to touch. It was initially a maddening experience. My first encounter with the world of Foucault was The Order of Things, which starts by describing in painstaking detail Diego Velazquez’s famous painting, Las Meninas. Interlaced with these details were allusions to how it all fit in with the topic of the book, which was nothing less than how the western world has organized the human sciences. After 5 or 6 attempts to make it through the introduction, I threw the book down in disgust, convinced that Foucault was a nutcase with nothing really to say.

That all changed a few months later when I picked up a free copy of Discipline and Punish. Thankfully, there were no giant, esoteric metaphors through which to wade before getting to the actual book. Although tough going at first, I was able to catch the flow of his writing, allowing me to ride the wave all the way to the end. Until this day, I count it as the second most important book I have ever read.

Discipline and Punish is ostensibly about the history behind the European prison reforms of the 1800s. Before that time, prisons were places where society exacted revenge on the people who had violated its laws. Prisoners would be stuck in dark cells and neglected, oftentimes as a prequel to some sort of physical punishment. Then along came the enlightened reformers. They believed prisons should be places where criminals are rehabilitated. This led to more humane treatment of prisoners and fairer standards of sentencing. The success of the reformers pretty much gave us the template for the prisons of today.

But there was much more behind the efforts of the reformers than just a concern for prisoners. As the book progresses, Foucault ties in their agenda to wider changes overtaking the western world at the time. The 1800s represented a fundamental rupture in historical time, an era when the entire power structure of the western world was shifting. Europe was changing from a monarchal world, where power was concentrated in a dynasty, to a capitalist world where power was diffused throughout a democratic marketplace. The efforts of the reformers were in step with this new power structure.

The new regime exercised discipline through many different channels. Rather than just the state, discipline began to be exercised by entities outside of the state: hospitals, schools, banks and anything else that dealt with masses of people. Its goals were not necessarily to enforce laws, but to enforce norms. Norms are determined by the bell curve. When your doctor tells you that you are overweight, it is because she is comparing your weight to the average of everyone else in your age or height group. When the school tells you that you are failing, it is comparing your grades to average grades of your peers. When a bank tells you that you have a bad credit score, they are comparing your score to an overall average. If found deficient in these areas, these institutions have ways of correcting you so that you eventually fall within that meaty part of the bell curve where most other people can be found. Doctors can recommend diet and exercise regimes, schools can provide extra tutoring and banks can refuse to give you a loan until you square away your other debts. This is what discipline looks like on an everyday basis.

In order to keep track of your progress, or lack thereof, each of these institutions treat you as a case. Your doctor has a file on you, the school has a permanent record and the banks have your credit history. These institutions have the facts of your case because they each exercise a certain type of power over you. Doctors can strip you naked and invade your body with any type of device they see fit. Schools can demand that you take a test to prove what you know. Banks can access your bills and other sensitive information. In short, they all have their own forms of examination. These examinations require that you expose certain parts of yourself to what Foucault calls a “normalizing gaze”. In a sense, your most private effects are constantly on display for these institutions, all so they can determine if you need some sort of correction.

The normalizing gaze is part of a society of surveillance. There are eyes on us constantly. Cameras and wiretaps are only the most explicit forms of this surveillance. The goal is always the same. We are under watch so much that we begin to behave as if even our most private actions will always be seen. In this way, we discipline ourselves so society does not have to. It is an efficient way to keep society under control.  It is a far cry from the type of discipline exercised in a monarchal regime, where secret police and informants watch our physical actions and the punishment for wrongdoing involves something done to our physical bodies. Hence the poor conditions of prisoners in such a regime. Hence also the efforts of the prison reformers of the 1800s. They represented not so much a more humane alternative to punishment as they did a more efficient alternative. It was the perfect form of punishment in a capitalist society obsessed with cost-effectiveness. Their prisons were not better because they aimed at rehabilitation but because they folded up all of the devices of the surveillance society under one roof.

The panopticon, from the perspective of a prison cell.

The modern prison combines all of the forms of discipline found in the outside world. Foucault uses the example of the panopticon. The panopticon comes out of the work of the English thinker Jeremy Bentham. In the middle of the prison floor there is a tower on top of which there is a compartment where one guard can see out but nobody can see in. Surrounding the tower are all of the cells of the prison. The prisoners in each cell have no way of telling whether or not the guard is watching them at a particular moment, so they must assume they are being watched at all times. In this way, they are forced to internalize the camera that they did not internalize in the outside world. On top of this, prisoners can count on the normalizing gaze of psychotherapists, doctors, educators, religious activists and everyone else that can be found in the outside world. The modern prison is the single most complete place of surveillance anywhere. It is the ultimate manifestation of an entire society structured around the panopticon.

In these modes of discipline and punishment, we see the fingerprints of the two greatest developments of modern western civilization: democracy and capitalism. Democracy is represented by the bell curve. Where most people can be found is considered “normal”. Capitalism is represented by the ruthless efficiency of our disciplinary regime. There is no need to employ armies of Cossacks to watch and terrorize the population in the name of the monarch. Instead, people can be trained to discipline themselves with a just a small investment on society’s part. There is more bang for the buck, so to speak. Foucault ends up by calling attention to the parlance surrounding modern day criminal justice. Someone who is incarcerated is said to be paying their “debt” to society. A trial can expect to uncover not only the facts of a case, but the character history of the defendant as well. Everyone who has had, or can have, a normalizing gaze on the defendant is called in to testify. In this way, not only can the judge discern the severity of the crime, but the severity of the dysfunction within the criminal. Like money changers, the years they mete out must be roughly equal to the crime and the criminal. They weigh everything on the scales of justice to ensure both society and the criminal get a fair deal. It is the convergence of the marketplace and the courtroom.

In all of this, we see the major tendency of all of Foucault’s thought. Ideas are more than just ideas. Ideas take hold or recede based upon power structures. The reformers were genuine in their humanitarian concern for the incarcerated. However, their brand of reform was only possible in an age that was becoming more democratic and market-oriented. Their agenda eventually won out because it was compatible with the power structure of the time. Looking at their words and deeds is a study in what Foucault would call archaeology. Words are artifacts that say something about the age in which they were conceived. We can examine them the way an archaeologist examines a stone tool or a piece of pottery from an ancient civilization. They give us a window into the culture of an entire historical epoch. Through examining the words of an era, we can say something about the societal forces that gave those words sense and made those words possible.

Some people have criticized Foucault for making too much of power. They have taken his ideas to mean that change can only happen if the ruling elite of the time allow it. The French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre called Foucault “the last rampart of the bourgeoisie.” He believed Foucault ended up supporting a power structure that crushed free will and human agency.

Yet, Foucault was one of the most actively progressive thinkers of the 20th century. He marched in the streets for prison reform and believed in what he called “unmasking” all of the forms of discipline that existed throughout society. More than most thinkers, Foucault joined philosophy and action together. He believed activism to be more than just a struggle for social justice. Instead, activism was the way we made new ideas real and new historical epochs possible. One of his more famous quotes illustrates this:

“We have to be there at the birth of ideas, the bursting outward of their force: not in books expressing them, but in events manifesting this force, in struggles carried on around ideas, for or against them.”

While philosophers loved irresistible logic, Foucault understood that ideas were messy affairs, forged in the fires of historical struggle and change. Rather than seeing Foucault as a supporter of the status quo, we must look at the example he set through his actions.

He believed people must live the change they want to see in society. This requires not only being aware of the type of change you want, but the type of society you want to change.

Great Teachers Series: Ludwig Wittgenstein

I firmly believe that people can find great teachers in books. There have been certain authors, through the sheer force of their ideas and how they present them, who have made lasting changes to the way I see the world. This is the first post in a series that will examine my personal greatest teachers from beyond the grave. I will start with my top three favorite philosophers, dedicating a post to each from number three to number one. I will then do the same for other areas of interest, like economists, political leaders and literary writers. (I have not totally worked out how to arrange them). These posts will be sprinkled in between my usual diatribes against education reform and the general madness of the world around us.

It is important to note that I have no formal training in philosophy. I took one philosophy class as an undergrad in college. Otherwise, I started to get into philosophy in earnest in my early 20s. There are many thinkers with whom I am not familiar. Moreover, I understand that due to my lack of formal training, I might misunderstand the ideas of the philosophers I do write about. If you have further insights into the people I present in this series, including insights that contradict my own, I encourage you to share them in the comments section.  If you know of other ideas and thinkers that have contradicted or expanded upon the ones in this series, I also encourage you to share them. I have no problem with being taught or corrected.

This is a personal exercise for me. As with most of my other posts, I wish to share parts of myself with you.

3. Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951)

Few philosophers have said less than Wittgenstein. This was by design. Wittgenstein was impatient with the unwieldy books and unintelligible ideas that define philosophy. This was because he believed most philosophers spoke nonsense. For millennia, philosophers were delving into the nuances of truth, love, God, freedom and ethics, only to keep covering the same ground and asking the same questions. As Wittgenstein derisively said, “the cure for philosophy is more philosophy.” By the time Wittgenstein arrived on the scene, the philosophical tradition was a babel of dualisms, monisms, imperatives and truths. Wittgenstein ascribed this to the practice of philosophers speaking out of context. It made no sense to Wittgenstein to ask “what is truth?” It is a question vacuum sealed from any actual context. “The truth of what?” would be how Wittgenstein would respond to such nonsense.

He wrote only one formal book of philosophy, the mercifully short Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. It was Wittgenstein’s attempt to beat philosophers at their own game. He wrote in the most general terms possible in order to build what he believed to be a complete picture of reality. This was during a stage of his life when he believed words painted a picture, so to speak, of the world. Using the most accurate words would create the most accurate picture of overall truth. After he was done with the Tractatus, he was confident he had solved all of the problems of philosophy. The only thing left for Wittgenstein was the nagging question of “now what?” Wittgenstein faced the nihilism of a goal that has been reached, a desire that has been abolished. This would be what would later be described as “Wittgenstein’s Ladder”. He put all of philosophy’s problems to rest, pulling up the ladder behind him so that future thinkers would not have anything with which to wrestle.

But the history of philosophy is full of these moments when something that seemed definitive at first turns out only to be a starting point. Wittgenstein’s mind was too restless to give itself over to smug self-satisfaction. He began writing privately, turning over the ideas of the Tractatus, rejecting some and refining others. Although he never published another book, his writings were collected posthumously and packaged as the Philosophical Investigations. The biggest difference between this book and the Tractatus was that he rejected the idea that words can paint a picture of the world. Instead, he believed language was used within what he called “language games”. One might call a language game a context, but it is something more as well. Take the word game. It is very difficult to define the word game by itself. Instead, the word only makes sense when associated with a type of game, whether a board game or a love game.

There are levels of language games. The words “green” or “red” may elude exact definition in a dictionary but, because of training, we all think the same thing when we hear them and can visualize the colors to which they refer. This is an example of what he called public language. Then there are those language games we use around our friends, family, coworkers and anyone else with whom there is a certain level of understanding. How many times have we been around a group of someone else’s friends, only to hear them engaged in a conversation we cannot understand? This is because they are using a bunch of words, gestures and abbreviations that they have built throughout several contexts. A language like this is not entirely public, nor is it strictly private. Private language refers to words that describe our inner life. When we tell someone we have a toothache, can that other person truly understand what we mean? They might have a sense of what a toothache is, but most likely cannot know the toothache we are feeling at that moment. The same goes for emotions like love, hate, fear and anything else that might be swirling around inside of us at the moment.

The concept of language games helps explain why Wittgenstein steered clear of topics like love, ethics and God that other philosophers usually contend with head-on. He felt that, no matter what words he might use to describe these things, they can never be fully articulated. Therefore, the deepest part of Wittgenstein’s thought will forever remain inaccessible to us. As Wittgenstein famously said, “Wherefore one cannot speak, one must remain silent.” The most important ideas would never be able to be spoken. More than any other thinker, Wittgenstein could be defined by what he did not say. He never spoke about ethics, leading one to conclude that he was a man of strong moral conviction. He never tackled religion, meaning he was probably very religious or, at the very least, mystical. We can start to draw our own conclusions about Wittgenstein’s feelings about these things, as well as all the other aspects of inner life on which he was conspicuously silent.

As a teacher, Wittgenstein made me more aware of the words I use with my students. I try to use words of the public language when starting all of my lessons. This forces me to reflect upon what could possibly be universal for a class of 30 kids from differing backgrounds and abilities. Sometimes I do not achieve the universality and simplicity for which I strive, but it remains an eternal goal nonetheless. Over the course of the semester, I try to build a language game that is shared within each class. We frequently draw upon the days, weeks and months of material we have learned previously. It has become particularly helpful in determining in what areas struggling students might need assistance. There are those moments when a student says or writes something completely off base. These instances give me a glimpse into what language game they could possibly be using. Many times, the clarification of a small idea from a previous lesson or a rephrasing of a question will help that student be part of the language game everyone else is using. From beginning to end, I try to avoid nonsense and encourage my students to do the same. This means using words with specific and definite meanings. Most importantly, this entails pinning down concepts in as few words as possible. Being efficient and specific when using language avoids confusion and makes students confident they can follow a train of thought from start to finish.

Wittgenstein has also helped me see the nonsense in many of the fads that pass themselves off as new pedagogical techniques. Teachers understand that there is an entire galaxy of writers, professors and reformers who want to foist their ideas for better teaching on our schools. Most of them are laden down with jargon, taking an entire textbook to say what could be said in a few words. Wittgenstein would wretch if he ever had to read half the garbage to which aspiring teachers are exposed. He would probably bang his head against a table if he ever had to sit through a professional development session conducted by so-called instructional experts. He probably would have very little patience for students as well, who naturally tend to be clumsy when expressing themselves, especially when trying to pull a fast one on their teachers. In short, Wittgenstein has strengthened my BS detectors. A teacher today cannot survive without them.

There is probably much more to be said about Wittgenstein, but I fear I might descend into nonsense myself if I try. Instead, here is a classy-looking dialogue featuring philosopher John Searle on Wittgenstein’s legacy. (Searle’s part starts around 3:36)

Start your Morning with a Lil’ Intellectual Debate

*Awesome 7os haircuts and outfits alert*

Sometimes I watch stuff like this when I wake up just to give the old brain a jumpstart. This is a discussion between Noam Chomsky and Michel Foucault (my avatar image) filmed in 1971. They are essentially talking about what constitutes a just society. My favorite part is how Chomsky is speaking English and Foucault is speaking French and they are still able to perfectly understand each other.

Chomsky posits that it is within human nature to want justice. He believes his now trademark  “anarcho-syndicalism” model of decentralized social structures that foster freedom and human creativity would be the basis of a just society. For Chomsky, justice and human nature are knowable concepts. We have a general, baseline sense of what these things entail. Anarcho-syndicalism claims to be in accord with the requirements of true justice and the fulfillment of human potential.                                                

Foucault believes that our ideas of human nature and justice are functions of the power structure of society. This means that the way we define these terms depends upon our position within a society. Essentially, if human nature and justice do exist, we can never know what they are because our views of them are determined by society and our place within it. For this same reason, any attempt to create a utopia runs the risk of replicating the injustices we are trying to avoid. In short, we cannot access the ideas of justice and human nature without tools borrowed from our culture.