Indifferent and Irresponsible

 

I am reposting here two essays I wrote in 2013 that strike me as pertinent today. They seem to share a certain perspective regarding the loss of personal freedom — though from different parts of the world at different times. Please excuse the length.

The following characterization of the rise of autocratic political societies was written by the Japanese political satirist Nakae Chomin in 1887 attacking a stubbornly despotic government in his country.  As our country becomes increasingly autocratic, run by the few power brokers who are gradually and with fixed purpose neutering the voting population, who couldn’t care less, I was struck by the sober truths in this passage.

“Even in this case another and even more dreadful source of disease arises. What is it? People support themselves by their labor, submit part of their income to the government, and consequently feel their duties to the state are completely fulfilled. They grow indifferent. Scholars think only of perfecting their writings. Artists think only of polishing their skills. Those engaged in agriculture, industry, and commerce think only of high profits and become indifferent to everything else. Under these circumstances, the function of the brain gradually shrinks, and the complete human being is reduced to a mere digester of food. In other words, the scholar’s writings, the artist’s skills, the works of those engaged in agriculture, industry, and commerce eventually become sediments at the bottom of a barrel, without vitality or change. The entire nation becomes a mere lump of slimy, jelly-like flesh.”

It’s not only the autocrats who would like to run the world and deprive us of our freedom, it is also the presumed “experts.”

In a most interesting chapter of that most provocative book, The Culture of Narcissism, Christopher Lasch has a careful analysis of the cultural phenomenon I call the “parental paralysis. ” I speak of the apparent inability of so many parents in this country to simply rely on their own intuitions in raising their children because a host of so-called “experts” have convinced them that they (the experts) know so much more about raising children than do their parents. For some reason parents have bought into this nonsense. The experts, whom Lasch calls the “helping professions” consist of social workers, teachers of “domestic science,” academic experts on “marriage and the family,” marriage counselors, family therapists, psychologists, and other social scientists of their ilk.

(It is curious that we tend to ignore the legitimate expertise of bona fide scientists who continue to warn us about the warming of the planet, but we will buy into a bunch of malarkey put out there by a host of social scientists with questionable credentials promoting doubtful procedures regarding child-rearing.)

In any event, Lasch traces the development of parental paralysis back to the 1920s and calls the first stage of the take-over of the family by these experts the “behavioral” stage, when behaviorism was the prevailing arm of psychology and popular books written by such folks as John Watson and Arnold Gesell began to undermine the confidence of parents in their own abilities to raise their children and persuaded them that the kids were so much better off if their parents simply listened to the authors and raised the kids “by the book.” Of course, there were a great many books by Watson and Gesell and people like Ernest and Gladys Grove who promised kids “freedom from emotional bondage to their parents.” Seriously.

The second stage came in the late thirties and forties. The growth of the progressive movement in education (which was “child-centered” rather than “subject-centered”) coupled with “debased versions of Freudian theory, [resulted in] excessive ‘permissiveness.'” During this stage, the child and his or her “rights” became the center of the home and parents were warned not to thwart their child’s development by punishment and discipline — words that began to take on pejorative meanings in the social sciences and among parents and teachers as well. Coincidentally, the role of the state began to expand as the courts asserted their right to take children away from their parents if there was evidence of abuse — evidence that was at times questionable at best. During this stage the man at the center was Dr. Benjamin Spock who has been widely mistaken for the chief proponent of permissive child-raising because of his warning to readers of the damage parents could do to their offspring by an excess of strictness. However, the good doctor also attempted to warn against excessive permissiveness, but his message was somewhat cloudy and confusing to many parents. In any event, during this stage, the parents were increasingly targeted as the main element in the deterioration of the family unit. In the view that had become orthodox among so-called “experts,” parents were the “problem” that required solution if the children were to be saved.

This brought about, in the 1950s, what Lasch calls “the cult of authenticity” in which parents were told to “let it all hang out” and be honest with their children whom they were told should be treated like adults. Children were not to be restrained in their various modes of self-expression, since all feelings were legitimate and parents were admonished to befriend and discuss problems with their kids rather than attempt to correct them. Punishment, especially corporal punishment, was definitely taboo. Whatever authority the parents might have once had over their children was by this time a thing of the past: the child was now the center of the family and the parents were supposed to be incapable of raising them on their own. After all, parents were regarded as unable to distinguish right from wrong, as were all folks in what was becoming an increasingly relativistic age — except the “experts, of course, who were still regarded as those who knew best.  Note, please, that parental love never seemed to enter into the equation at any stage, even the final one. Perhaps this is because love is not quantifiable or reducible to behavioral terms.

The fourth stage, which is the one we have reached at present, resulted from

“rising crime rates, juvenile delinquency, suicide, and mental breakdowns [which] finally convinced many experts, even many social workers, that welfare agencies furnish a poor substitute for the family.”

Unfortunately, the damage had been done; a great many parents remain convinced to this day that the books written by the experts map a clear road to successful child-rearing and the courts remain able and all-too-willing to take kids away from parents who are regarded as unfit for many reasons — not all of which are legitimate. As Lasch points out,

“The state can now segregate deviants [i.e., children] for no other reason than that they or their parents have refused to cooperate with the courts, especially when refusal to cooperate appears as prima facie evidence of a bad home environment.”

In a word, as the confidence of parents in their own abilities to raise their own children has waned, the power of the state has grown exponentially in its ability to remove children from what may well be loving homes, based on the testimony of the ‘helping professionals” who may or may not have children of their own and who almost certainly have learned what they know about appropriate child-rearing techniques from books written years ago that are still erroneously regarded by many as the last word in sound parenting.

If Lasch is to be believed,

“the deterioration of child care has been at work for a long time and many of its consequences appear to be irreversible.”

Parents have been listening for so long to those who claim to be experts, they have forgotten that love of their children, coupled with consistent and coherent discipline, are paramount (and natural)  and, while they will assuredly make mistakes, parents should trust their instincts — which for so many centuries have seemed to be a fairly safe path to follow.

Parents? Citizens? Whither your freedom??

Advertisements

The Pyramid Ideal

I recently posted a brief exposition describing a challenge program I foisted on the honors students at the university where I taught for 37 years. There were several comments, but one from my fellow blogger, John, which was most encouraging, prompted me to explore a few thoughts connected with his remarks. I have blogged endlessly (some would say) about education, but it is close to my heart and I am sorely dismayed by the present state of education and seem always to be coming back to the topic closest to my heart.

It does seem to me that the ideal image of education would be the notion of a triangle, or pyramid, that stands on a broad base and tapers to the top. England followed this model for years with its public schools providing the broad education in the arts and sciences — mostly the former — while the university (or “uni”) providing the finishing touches in the way of specialization for the professions. Some American colleges and universities adopted this model but, of late, that model has been largely displaced by a more practical one that stresses job preparation and pretty much ignores education altogether.

Let’s one clear about some things: education should NOT be confused with job training or with mere schooling. There are manny people who have spent years in school — some with PhDs if you can imagine — who are not well educated people. And there are those with poor or inadequate schooling who are well educated people, which is to say people who have continued to read, think and grow as intelligent adults.

But in this country by and large we have been sold the idea that schooling and education are all abut preparing for a job or, as we like to call it, a “career.” This started years ago in order to keep young people in school and when it was clear that those who had a college degree made more money in their lifetime than those who lacked the degree. It’s when the colleges and universities started to be all about money, to be businesses run for profit. Whatever the reason, higher education, so-called, took a wrong turn and lost its sense of its proper purpose — which is to put young people in possession of their own minds, to prepare them for life, not work.

The model that provides the best idea of what education should be all about is that of the pyramid, as I suggested above. The base should be broad and strong and should start in the grades — or high school at the latest. That base should provide students with knowledge about literature, history, civics, mathematics, and the sciences — both the social sciences and the hard sciences. Those who go on to college should then begin to narrow that base and learn more about less. And at that point they might learn some of the basic skills that will prepare them for specific jobs. But the data show us that folks change their minds about what they want to do with their lives, and how they want to make a living, several times before they are forty. So the broad base is essential.

The broad base allows the young person to change direction. One who is trained in one field and who becomes disenchanted with that field after a few years cannot, as things now stand, change direction without going back to school and learning new skills. One who has had a broad base in the arts and sciences — what have dismissively been called the “elitist” liberal arts — does have that ability. They have learned to use their minds and how to learn new things on other own — without having to go back to school.

The data suggest that those with a liberal education make the most successful employees, ironically, because of those skills I have mentioned, skills of communication in speaking and writing, a broad perspective, and a lively imagination. They therefore have that flexibility I mentioned above, the ability to change direction later in life. And, moreover, the data suggest that they make more money in the long run than those with a narrow focus — even though the initial job may be hard to find. But, then, these days that seems to be true for all of those who graduate from our schools of “higher learning” no matter how early they started to prepare for a specific job — a job that is often not there when they graduate.

And that’s the rub. No one at the age of seventeen or eighteen can know what jobs will be available to them when they are twenty-one or twenty-two — no matter what someone tells them. The only certain thing is that things will change. And the best way to prepare for change is to have a pyramidal education, one with a broad base that provides a solid foundation.

Good People Doing Good Things — Big & Little

A repost of a blog by a friend who likes to remind us that there are good people out there in spite of all the bad news!

Filosofa's Word

Guess what I found?  I found good people!


Generosity times 100 …

Alec Sprague lives in Jacksonville, Florida.  A few days ago, he went to his local Costco store to buy a generator, and I imagine his jaw dropped when he saw a man buying not one, not two, but 100 generators!  At $450 each, that is no small feat!  About $45,000 by my reckoning … one could buy a brand new car for that and still have money left over!

Now, I don’t think Alec got the man’s name, but he did speak to him and found that the man was buying not only 100 generators, but also a large stash of food to send to the Bahamas for those who, in the wake of Hurricane Dorian last week, are left without electricity or supplies, many without homes.  Add to that $45,000 tab another $4,285.70 for a variety of…

View original post 1,154 more words

Redemption

One of the more bizarre stories in sports the past few weeks has been the saga of Antonio Brown, a very gifted and self-absorbed wide receiver who plays football in the NFL. He had played for the Pittsburg Steelers for a number of years though at the end of his time there he made it clear that he wanted to be traded, making it impossible for the coaches to want him around. Rumor is that he wanted to be traded to the New England Patriots, the standard for excellent football programs in the NFL — whether you like the team or not. But Pittsburg would not trade him to another team in their division because he has immense talent and they didn’t want to have to figure out how to stop him twice a year. So  he managed to orchestrate a trade to the Oakland Raiders where his behavior became truly bizarre. A recent story on CBS Sports gives us a sense of what Oakland had to deal with and why, eventually, they decided to get rid of him — and trade him to (wait for it) New England. This story centers around Jerry Rice who helped Brown work a deal with the Raiders where he was reported to have signed a contract worth more than $30 million. But it also hints at the various things Brown did to make it impossible for the team to keep him on the roster.

Rice isn’t alone in thinking that Brown becoming a Patriot was the plan from the beginning. On Sunday morning, ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that New England offered Pittsburgh a first round pick for Brown before the Steelers traded him to Oakland for third and fifth round picks. Additionally, ESPN’s Chris Mortensen reported on Sunday that Brown hired social media consultants to help expedite his release from Oakland. As everyone knows, it worked, as Brown was released on Saturday after posting a video that included a private conversation between himself and Raiders head coach Jon Gruden on Friday night.

Earlier in the week, Brown was nearly suspended by Oakland after reportedly starting an altercation with GM Mike Mayock. Brown kicked off last week by sharing Mayock’s letter informing him of recent team fines on social media. All of this came after a preseason that saw Brown miss significant time with frostbitten feet while also fighting with the NFL for the right to use his now illegal helmet.

As I said, it was clear from the beginning that Brown didn’t want to play for the Raiders even though he seemed to say the right things at the right time — even offering a seemingly heartfelt apology to the team and the coaches in an effort to win a place back on the team — before he started trawling social media seeking ways to be traded to another team, preferably the Patriots. He signed with the Patriots within hours after being released by the Raiders. Very interesting!

As suggested in the quotation above, the theory that is floating about in the airwaves among the braintrust that knows all about very little is that Brown orchestrated the entire long drawn-out episode in order to end up with the New England Patriots. If this is so we must give the man credit of some sort, while hoping that perhaps this is the end of his bizarre behavior. But I do wonder if the reasons for his wanting to play for New England have to do with his unconscious desire for structure and discipline in an otherwise directionless life.

Folks like Christopher Lasch have told us a number of times that the current generation suffers from a lack of authority in their lives and that deep down we all crave structure and authority in order to find some sort of psychic balance. I find those arguments compelling and see Brown’s antics in the light of that analysis. On the one hand we have an immensely talented athlete whose life lacks direction and purpose, and on the other hand we have a coach in New England who is known to be a strict disciplinarian and who had reclaimed a number of talented athletes who seemed to have no direction and were given to chronic outbursts and bizarre behavior. Randy Moss was one of these who eventually ended up in the NFL Hall of Fame and was one of the most talented players ever to play the game of football. Could Antonio Brown be craving this sort of redemption? Could he want to be in a place where the line is clearly drawn and he will find some sort of peace of mind in an otherwise out-of-control existence? We shall see.

But if I am right, there may be a lesson  here for us all as we go further down the road to undisciplined out-of-control behavior designed to simply “express ourselves” while we draw attention to ourselves and cry out for someone to finally say “STOP!” Like Antonio Brown, perhaps?

P.S. And this just in — after the above was posted. Brown has been accused of rape and sexual assault by a former female trainer. Stay tuned!!

Challenging Students

I founded and directed the Honors Program at the University where I taught for thirty-seven years. It was my pride and joy and I was privileged to have been able to teach some of the brightest and best students to graduate from that University. One of the innovations I promoted was a Senior Challenge session for the honor students. The students came from all academic disciplines, but I thought it would be good for them to have a bit of a challenge before graduating with honors to test the breadth and depth of their learning.

Initially the sessions were called “Challenge Sessions,” but one of he psychology professors convinced me that this was a bit too stressful for the students so we changed the name to “Senior Dialogues.” I always regretted the decision to change the name because I felt that we were preparing the students for the “real” world and they would face challenges every day of their lives. Why coddle them? But the name was changed in order not to ruffle feathers. One must choose his or her battles.

The sessions involved the student’s major advisor, the director of the program, and another faculty member selected by the students themselves. The questions came from every side on every possible topic. The goal was not to embarrass the student, but to prepare them for interviews after they graduated and also to find out where their weaknesses lay so they could work on developing those weaknesses after they “commenced.” After all, education does not stop with graduation. Or it shouldn’t.

My favorite questions were the following: What three famous people would you invite to dinner? Who were the three greatest human beings who ever lived? What is the greatest problem facing humankind today? And I then winged it from there, asking questions that forced the students into strange territory or asking them to address topics they might otherwise avoid. By and large it went well.

In the nearly thirty years of leading the sessions I always asked the question about the most serious problem facing humankind and not once did a student suggest that it might be overpopulation — which, in my view is the root of all other problems. There are too damned many people on earth and it is creating serious problems! Many of the answers were interesting and even insightful — such things as the unrelenting spread of nuclear weapons, climate change, failure to curtail weapons sales, abortion, and the like. But never the point about human population.

One of the brightest of the students was a psychology major who was finishing her degree in three years in order to go on to graduate school in psychology. I pushed her into foreign territory on purpose because I sensed that her background was a bit narrow. I asked who wrote the Divine Comedy, for example, or what a tetrahedron was or who painted the Sistine Chapel ….that sort of thing. Bear in mind that this was one of my favorite students, but I wanted her to realize that education is not about finding a nich, but about a broad spectrum of knowledge including, but not exclusive to, her major field of interest. After the session (and we all evaluated the performance of the students at the end, though they received no grades) I spoke with her and strongly recommended that she take another year to explore topics other than psychology. She thought about it for a few days and rejected the notion. She graduated and went to graduate school where she earned her M.A. in psychology. Years later she wrote to me and said that she wished she had listened to me because she was no longer interested in psychology and wished she had other intellectual interests while in college. That story is both sad and true. And typical.

Another student, a history major, in responding to the question of who were three of the greatest human beings (male or female) who had ever lived listed his own father first! He then gave a most interesting explanation of his choice, though I had problems accepting the answer myself. In any event it led to a lively discussion of “greatness” — a notion that has come into disrepute of late by many who deny there is any such thing. I wrote his father after the session to tell him what his son had answered and his father has kept the letter to this day!

There were other episodes as well and they almost always involved success stories. The students felt proud that they had survived and they almost always shone in the spotlight. Of all the things I accomplished in my many years of higher education, those sessions were at or near the top. And given that both of my sons graduated from the university and went through the honors program — and the Senior Dialogues — I had occasion to be doubly proud. Those were some great times and some exceptional students who have gone on to make their mark in the world.

Prescient

In 2015 I posted some snippets from a book by Aldous Huxley which seem to me to be more pertinent than ever — especially since there are so many in this country, in particular, who seem to prefer a dictator to what is left of our democratic system. I repost here.

I have referred a number of times to Huxley’s 1931 “fable” Brave New World which predicted the future with astonishing accuracy. It is still, in my  mind, one of the most remarkable works ever written: prescient if not great literature. And it sold many copies. But few have read the sequel, Brave New World Revisited, that Huxley wrote in 1958 in which he admitted that he was even less optimistic than he had been when he wrote his classic fable. The newer work is not a novel, but a series of essays about the topics he touched on in his novel and which still bothered him twenty-seven years later. He starts off with the major problem as he saw it then, overpopulation, about which he has this to say:

” On the first Christmas Day the population on the planet was about two hundred and fifty million — less than half the population of modern China. Sixteen centuries later, when the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, human numbers had climbed to a little more than five hundred million. By the time of the signing of the Declaration of Independence world population had passed the seven hundred million mark. In 1931, when I was writing Brave New World, it stood at just under two billion. Today, only twenty-seven years later, there are two billion eight hundred million of us.”

As I write this in 2015 the population on earth numbers 7.3 billion. In a word it has more than doubled since 1958. It boggles the mind. As Huxley goes on to say,

“Unsolved, the problem will render insoluble all other problems. Worse still it will create conditions in which individual freedom and the social decencies of the democratic way of life will become impossible, almost unthinkable. . . .There are many roads to The Brave New World; but perhaps the straightest and broadest of them is the road we are traveling today, the road that leads through gigantic numbers and accelerating increases [in the human population].”

It’s bad enough we refuse to deal with the issue of climate change, but it is tragic that we even refuse to discuss the problem of overpopulation, which is, in my view, the problem at the root of all others.  However, this is only one issue Huxley dealt with in this book. As anyone knows who read Brave New World, Huxley was very concerned about the loss of individual freedom in a society that absorbs the individual  in an increasingly crowded world that is headed inevitably toward an all-poowerful central government. In that world a few will be forced by circumstances to take complete control of the reins of government while the rest spend their time seeking pleasures. As he noted in this regard:

“Only the most vigilant can maintain their liberties and only those who are consistently and intelligently on the spot can hope to govern themselves effectively by democratic procedures. A society most of whose members spend a great part of their time, not on the spot, not here and now and in the calculable future, but somewhere else, in the irrelevant other worlds of sport and soap opera of mythology and metaphysical fantasy, will find it hard to resist the encroachments of those who manipulate and control it.”

None knew better than Huxley how insidious are the factors that control the minds of those otherwise preoccupied with trivia such as social media and games. He understood better than most that true freedom is not a function of how many loaves of bread there are in the grocery store, but in the knowledge which loaf is best for one’s health. He knew how important education is to the maintenance of human freedom and the democracy that is trending, even in 1958, toward dictatorship  — not a dictatorship held together by violence, but a dictatorship held together by subtle psychological manipulation. The kinds of manipulation that gets us to buy things we don’t need.

He understood how good salesmanship, whether one is selling soap or a political candidate, is simply another word for propaganda and he understood how clever propaganda works on the human mind and how easy it is for demagogues to capture the untrained minds of apathetic people.

“The demagogic propagandist must be consistently dogmatic. All his statements are made without qualification. There are no grays in his picture of the world; everything is either diabolically black or celestially white. In Hitler’s words, the propagandist should adopt ‘a systematically one-sided attitude toward every problem that has to be dealt with.’ He must never admit that he might be wrong or that people of different opinions might be even partially right. Opponents should not be argued with; they should be attacked, shouted down . . ..'”

Sound familiar? Huxley examines the workings of propaganda in great detail over two chapters in his book. He thinks we should have learned from Germany’s example; but, of course, we did not. Propaganda still works and it works well, whether the product is toothpaste or presidents.

“Democratic institutions can be made to work only if all concerned do their best to impart knowledge and to encourage rationality. But today, in the world’s most powerful democracy, the politicians and their propagandists prefer to make nonsense of democratic procedures by appealing almost exclusively to the ignorance and irrationality of the electors.. . .[Their techniques will include] scientific selection of appeals and planned repetition . . . Radio [and TV] spot announcements and ads will repeat phrases with a planned intensity. Billboards will push slogans of proven effectiveness. . . . Candidates need, in addition, rich voices and good diction, to be able to look sincerely at the TV camera.”

Huxley seemed to have sensed exactly where we were headed in the 50s. Today we seem to have arrived where he pointed to back then, though there are a great many people who would deny it. In the end, he has the final word:

“By means of ever more effective methods of mind-manipulation, the democracies will change their nature; the quaint old forms — elections, parliaments, Supreme Courts, and all the rest — will remain. The underlying substance will be a new kind of totalitarianism. All the traditional names, all the hallowed slogans will remain exactly what they were in the good old days. Democracy and freedom will be the theme of every broadcast and editorial. Meanwhile the ruling oligarchy and its highly trained elite of soldiers, policemen, thought-manufacturers and mind-manipulators will quietly run the show as they see fit.”

 

Useless Knowledge

A good friend printed on his Facebook page a list of clever Latin phrases that colleges might adopt for their institutions. On that list was one that stood out to me:

Pro scientia inutili
“For useless knowledge”

This, of course, is tongue in cheek and meant to make us smile, if not laugh outright. But I would like to make a case that this as what colleges and universities should aspire too. This is a motto any self-respecting college or university should embrace. We are focused far too much on utility in this country — to the point that if something is not found useful it is tossed aside. But some of the greatest ideas ever shared among humans were initially thought to be useless. Like the notion of human rights, for example. Or the notion that persons are ends in themselves — the root and branch of ethical behavior. Moreover, many of the things we treasure above all else are useless, things such as love and beauty, for example, not to mention the smell of burgers cooking on a barbecue or the taste of your favorite cold beverage on a hot summer’s day.

But, returning to the subject, the point is that the most valuable knowledge is useless knowledge. In any event, knowledge in and of itself is not what education is all about. On the contrary, most knowledge is a means to an end while education is what is left after we have forgotten all the “knowledge” we learned in school. Education is all about putting young people into possession of their own minds — as I have said again … and again. It’s about learning how to think. And that may or may not involve knowledge. At best, knowledge can lead one to think: as noted above; it is, or ought to be, a means to an end — even though seemingly useless.

America has shown itself repeatedly to be a country that denigrates not only useless knowledge but intellect itself. A fundamentalist preacher  recently noted on his radio show that educated women make the worst mothers. This is not only offensive to women, it is downright stupid. Moreover, it is an attack once again on intelligence. And as such it simply joins a long list of attacks against the development of the human mind that we find when looking back on American history.  I have often wondered where this suspicion of intelligence, this anti-intelligence, comes from. Were the first people who came to this country — often as outcasts from their homeland — the mindless dregs who were regarded as a burden on those who remained behind? One does wonder.

In many European countries intelligence is prized above all other human accomplishments. Teachers are regarded with respect and even admiration (witness tiny Finland where teaching positions are prized by the best and brightest). In America they are regarded with suspicion and distrust and relegated to the dustbins. “Those who can do; those who can’t teach.” And they find themselves at the bottom of the list of professional occupations: low pay and low esteem. We don’t pay those who want to help others learn enough to allow them to live comfortably. The brightest young people in this country as a rule do not aspire to teach. This, again, is because of the inherent distrust of the mind and the rejection out of hand of the notion that intelligence is something worthy of development. Teachers, like the things they teach, are also useless.

I generalize, of course. But it has been said by others much wiser and more widely read than I that ours is a country that has been from the outset anti-intellectual. Even our founding fathers who were among the most intelligent of those who made America their home — people like Thomas Jefferson — regarded usefulness as the prize to be achieved, not realizing that useless knowledge was what made folks like them stand out. They were, by and large, practical men with little patience for useless knowledge. They set the tone.

The liberal arts have always been useless. They are about acquiring the tools of intellectual growth, about learning how to learn and how to think. In this country they are dismissed as “elitist.”  As Robert Hutchins once said, however, the only questions worth asking are those that have no answers. They do not lead to practical results, but they force us to think and think again. Useless knowledge is about those things that we ponder and which make our minds grow and expand, enabling us to work through the plethora of information that passes for knowledge to those tiny insights that are valuable in and of themselves. Useless knowledge enables us to recognize fools and charlatans when we see them and makes us wise enough to vote into political office those who might actually be qualified for office and not merely able to pose as wise when they are actually quite stupid. It makes a human life worth living.

Usefulness is not what it is all about. On the contrary, useless knowledge is what it is all about — if our goal is to become as intelligent as possible. Think about it!

Hanging It Up

News of the retirement of Andrew Luck, quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts and only 29 years of age, shocked the sports world. As recounted in Yahoo News:

After a lengthy battle with injuries in recent years, Andrew Luck is officially calling it a career.

The Indianapolis Colts quarterback announced that he is retiring from the NFL after just six seasons on Saturday night.

“This is not an easy decision,” Luck said after the Colts’ preseason game against the Chicago Bears. “Honestly it’s the hardest decision of my life. But it is the right decision for me.

“For the last four years or, I’ve been in this cycle of injury, pain, rehab. Injury, pain, rehab. And it’s been unceasing, unrelenting — both in-season and offseason. And I felt stuck in it, and the only way I see out is to no longer play football.”

“I’m in pain. I’m still in pain,” Luck said. “I’ve been in this [pain] cycle … and for me to move forward in my life the way I want to, it doesn’t involve football.”

The 29-year-old was on the sidelines at Lucas Oil Stadium for their preseason game against Chicago and remained there even after news of his retirement broke. Colts fans picked up the news during the game, too, and then booed Luck as he walked off the field following their 27-17 loss.

In and of itself, the news of a professional athlete retiring is noteworthy — especially an athlete as talented as Andrew Luck. But what makes this story particularly disturbing is the crowd reaction.

For some reason the brain trust at the Colts organization decided to announce the quarterback’s retirement during a pre-season football game. The announcement might have been made on Friday a press conference with no crowd around to express their disappointment and disapproval of the man’s decision. But they chose instead to announce it during the game. One wonders why.

The crowd at the game booed mightily — and that’s the disturbing part of this story. Some took off their Luck jerseys and threw therm to the ground. I am reminded of the day many years ago when Johnny Unitas was still playing for the Baltimore Colts and, after many years of playing a brutal game he was struggling. The crowd reaction was to boo him mightily. This was one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time who had made the Baltimore Colts one of the best, if not the best, team in professional football at the time. What’s with those people?

And that is the question: what is wrong with people that they would boo a man who has displayed such remarkable athletic ability for so many years. Andrew Luck, as the story recounts, has been dealing with pain for years. Many professional football players cannot get out of bed when they are in their forties. Pain is a fact of their lives. And, for some, it is relentless. Apparently Andrew Luck doesn’t want to be among those men.In my mind this is admirable, it shows signs of prudence. But the fans see only the blaze of glory on Sunday fizzling out and know that now they cannot hope to be able to strut with pride when their team wins the big prize. Seriously folks, it’s only a game and these are people who feel pain and hurt when booed.

In a word, the fans care only about the fact that the odds of the Colts winning the Super Bowl this year dropped from 15-1 to 30-1 after the announcement of Luck’s retirement. Their hopes are dashed. The man is that good. But, in addition to being a man in pain, he is a player who was smart enough to know when to hang it up. A great many athletes play on long after they have passed their prime. I suspect they don’t know what else to do. But then there’s the dopamine that is released when they make a great play and the fans go wild. That keeps many a star athlete going — men such as Johnny Unitas. The game can be addictive.

I applaud Andrew Luck for knowing when to call it quits. The fact that he is walking away from an estimated half-billion dollars in retiring at this point suggests that this is a man of courage and even wisdom. And the fact that the fans booed this man is deplorable.

Solus Ipse

I have developed this theme numerous times in this blog, but it bears repeating in light of one of the most popular sit-coms on television that recently closed up shop. I am speaking about “The Big Bang Theory” which had eleven successful years before finally going the way of all old sit-coms: syndication. The question is: why was it so popular? The answer is complex, but part of the explanation has to do with the central character, Sheldon Cooper,  a genius who is a theoretical physicist at Cal Tech. He also has asperger’s syndrome, a condition in which the individual is totally unaware of the effect he is having on other people. He lacks sensitivity and a sense of humor in addition to having no compassion whatever and being socially inept. His behavior ranges from amusing to peculiar, even maddening.

The show also has several other characters including a pretty “dumb blonde” who seems brighter than the other supposedly bright people the show centers around. She may well be at least part of the reason why the show was so popular. In any event, the Sheldon character is most interesting because, as I see it, he is an extension of the way so many of us are becoming: self-absorbed, totally unaware of others around us: solus ipse.

The Sheldon character may have been modeled after the lead in a British sit-com titled “Doc Martin” which centers around a physician in a small village in Cornwall who also has asperger’s syndrome. The difference is that Doc Martin, who also lacks a sense of humor and social skills, is very much aware of others (for the most part they annoy him) — though unaware of the effect his behavior has on others. He is a physician and has a deep and genuine sense of duty to his patients — many of whom would try the patience of a saint! And it is this sense of duty, together with his dawning awareness that he needs to work on his social skills — which must be learned by those suffering from his condition — that makes him a more sympathetic character.

What makes these two characters interesting is that they speak volumes about the fact that so many people are apparently drawn to the two of them. Despite his many strange “tics,” Doc Martin is someone we can identify with and for some strange reason care about. So also, although to a lesser degree, is Sheldon Cooper. I have suggested why this is so, and I will repeat that we care about such fellows because more and more of us are becoming just like them. One thing that many find appealing, I read from the comments others have made, is that they are totally honest: they say exactly what is on their minds. They do not “suffer fools.” And this is true. Both of these characters say exactly what they are thinking despite the fact that in many cases what they say is hurtful to others around them, even those they regard as friends. And both of these characters are similar in refusing to accept any responsibility whatever for the blunders they may commit. Remind you of anyone?

At times, the behavior of such folks as Doc Martin and Sheldon Cooper strikes viewers as sadistic, but this would be so only if they knew they were hurting others whereas these two people do not. If they hurt others, it is collateral damage, something out of the range of their awareness. The question is whether this excuses them. Are we to say “no foul” if those around us are unaware of the effect their behavior has on us and others around us? I think not. These people can be taught how to behave toward others, even if their behavior does not stem from genuine concern. And this is certainly the case for the rest of us who seem increasingly to be trending in their direction. It’s all about awareness and concern for others — and accepting responsibility for our actions.

This is why the trend toward increasing involvement with electronic devices is so disturbing: it encourages a loss of awareness of the real world and other people coupled with a gradual desensitization to the pain of others. It has been shown that it releases dopamine in the brain of users and therefore is addictive, and this is certainly a concern. But as we become increasingly lost in an electronic world in which we talk to machines and they talk back even as they drive our cars, we risk becoming increasingly less aware and less concerned — in a world where a sense of community and the desire to live in common are things that separate us from the wild animals. And from people like Sheldon Cooper and Doc Martin.

Scandal!

When I was a young man fresh out of graduate school, PhD in hand and filled with optimism, I taught at the University of Rhode Island for two years. Rhode Island was a great place to live and the University was a good place to work. As a new player on the team of seven professors I was handed the chore of teaching several sections of logic along with a course in the history of philosophy. Two other members of the department taught logic as well, since it was a university requirement that all students at the university take the course (imagine that!). Thus there were seven or eight sections of the course taught in three different ways.

Strange to say, the university scheduled all of the logic finals to be given in the gymnasium on he same day at the same hour. Strange, because it caused endless conflicts and when I pointed out to the powers-that-be they they could avoid conflicts if they scheduled finals by the class schedule instead of subject matter, they told me “this is the way we have always done things.” So it was in New England. Much like Old England, so I hear.

Anyway, the morning when finals had been scheduled to begin I was called by the chairman of the department to report ASAP because somehow one of the final exams had gotten out and was being copied and spread around to young students eager to learn. It was about 5:00 AM as I recall and I hopped to it! When I arrived I spent a couple of hours with the other instructors putting together a common exam for all students as we had no idea whose final had been pilfered. Imagine that! Several hundred students were now going to take an exam made up by three different instructors who each taught the course a different way. It was bedlam. The students complained — with good reason — and I had to lower the curve to make sure at least half the class passed the course. All because some kid, as it turned out, rummaged through the trash bin outside the philosophy department and found the plastic sheet that in those days covered the mimeograph paper and was later tossed aside: it being possible to determine just what was on the plastic sheet with just a touch of pencil rubbed on the overlay. What we didn’t know was whose exam had been pilfered. So we needed to design a new one we could give to all our students.

After the event we discovered that a fraternity man found the exam and was selling it to long lines of students lined up that morning eager to find out what was on the impending examination — even though they had no idea whose exam it was since the instructor’s name was not on the final exam! Still, it was a mess. And the rationalization that went around was that this was not such a bad thing: it was no different from keeping a wallet found on the street. Really? I was outraged.

Not only because I had to get up at dawn and rush to the university and try to put together an exam with a couple of my fellows, but because the excuse sounded so hollow, I wrote my first ever letter to the student paper. (It was not my last, as my wife will attest. I am a bit compulsive about such things — which is why I blog, I guess.) Anyway my letter pointed out that rummaging around in a dumpster outside the philosophy department was hardly like finding a wallet on the street. The  analogy was not only weak but the ethical conclusion in both cases was bogus: in either case it was wrong to (a) keep the wallet and (b) make money by selling copies of the exam to other students. Some things are just wrong.

Within a week I had a call from the Dean’s office and was told to report as soon as “convenient.” I was told that the university did not want a scandal and I should let the matter drop. Being bold and a bit naive I asked what was going to happen to the fraternity responsible as everyone knew which one it was — as determined by the lines in front of a particular fraternity house the morning of the exam. He said the university would handle it and repeated that I should let the matter drop. What this translated to was sweeping the whole thing under the carpet in hopes of saving face. So much for integrity in the Ivory Tower!

Interestingly enough I had one student, a young woman majoring in mathematics, who earned a legitimate B+ — on an exam that asked questions about things we had never even discussed in class. How remarkable!  But the rest of the students suffered from the entire episode, needless to say. And the fraternity got off scot free in order to avoid a scandal! Was it then that I began to be just a bit cynical?