Meeting Great Minds

I received a brochure in the mail yesterday (I will probably not go out today as it promises to be well below zero until tomorrow afternoon!). I usually don’t pay much attention to the bulk mail since it is filled with vapid messages from marketers whom I would rather ignore. But this one was from my alma mater reminding me of a classics series it offers every summer which has always fascinated me. This post may sound like a promotion for that college, but that is not my intention and the college will go unnamed.

The brochure starts out with the usual banter:

“The backgrounds of your fellow attendees span religions, cultures, interests, and ages, and each seminar, regardless of individual focus, makes room for multiple points of view. We are united, however, in a commitment to the texts we study and an unwavering belief that to understand another’s point of view is an act of generosity.”

OK, well that’s not the usual tripe. So I read on. The college is one of two sisters in Annapolis, Maryland and Santa Fe, New Mexico that has a four-year curriculum, based on reading the “Great Books.” And they offer summer seminars like those mentioned in the brochure — not for college credit, but simply for those who have a “passion for learning.”

I should point out that as one who spent four years at the college, I can attest that they mean what they say. The brochure is not simply passing along empty promises thrown up by a marketing firm. The colleges center around the seminar with two leaders, each of whose role is that of facilitator, not lecturer, and no more than eighteen participants. And they read serious material. Some of the great minds the participants will encounter in the brief weeks of the seminars are the following:

Aristotle, reminding us in his Politics how important civilization is, that we are more human as we interact with and care about others and reap the benefits of law and education. As Aristotle himself noted:

“That the city is by nature prior to each individual, then, is clear. For if the individual when separated from it is not self-sufficient, he could be in a condition similar to that of the parts in relation to the whole. One who is incapable of sharing or who is in need of nothing through being self-sufficient is no part of the city, and so is either a beast or a god.”

Then there’s John Stuart Mill from his essay On Liberty:

“The only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good in our own way, so long as we do not attempt to deprive others of theirs, or impede their efforts to obtain it. Each is the proper guardian of his own health, whether bodily, or mental, or spiritual. Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest.”

And so it goes. Snippets from the pens of great minds — minds that have been under attack in our colleges and universities by many who have traditionally been assigned the task of preserving the very best that has been passed on to us from our collective past. It is refreshing to know that there are small outposts in the din of daily chaos that passes for culture these days that still embrace civil discourse, the meeting of minds, and invite us to participate in the great conversation that is growing faint in the aforementioned din.



Uncivil Discourse

One of the distressing things about our present cultural morass is the low level of civil discourse. Even more troubling is the growing inability of people in this society to express themselves at all. What we have, then, is the felt-need of many to lower the level of discourse to the visceral coupled with their inability to say what they mean! Rather than deal with issues and agree to disagree with one another in a civil manner, we have become a nation of interrupters, shouters, mud-slingers — and tongue-tied tweeters.

The recent debacle surrounding Rush Limbaugh’s trashing of a young woman for having the gall to approach Democratic members of a Congressional committee and suggest that health insurance plans should fund contraceptives to help reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies is well documented. Less well documented is actress Patricia Heaton’s leaping to Limbaugh’s side in lashing out at the young law student. Both have apologized. While Heaton’s twitter-trashing was fairly intelligible, her apology was more typical, buried as it is in the usual twitterese:

“re @SandraFluke Mea culpa Sandra! Wasn’t being respectful 2 u re my tweets as I hope people wd b w/me. Don’t like you being dissed -so sorry.”

One of the more interesting things here is the gibberish that is beginning to take over as language in a language-impoverished society. Vocabulary has dropped off precipitously and teachers are already complaining that their students cannot write complete sentences. Technology is simply making matters worse. (It is sobering to consider that Shakespeare wrote with a quill pen!) We not only don’t have much to say in the first place, we can’t even say it in an intelligible way. This is especially problematic since our inability to express ourselves directly impairs our ability to think. In any event, the lower level of discourse that substitutes an ad hominem attack for a well-reasoned argument is now coming in the form of dissing on twitter.

People have always disagreed, and the disagreement has often taken a nasty turn. The ad hominem fallacy in logic that rests on the fact that a person himself or herself is being attacked rather than that person’s argument has been around for a long time. It is tempting to commit it on purpose — and even fun. The English are very good at it, as we can see by tuning in to a debate in Parliament. It makes for good entertainment and those in the public eye have long relished the humorous effect their personal attacks can have. Rush Limbaugh is simply one of the more recent champions of this sort of discourse, though he takes it to a lower level with intent to cripple. And Patricia Heaton is free to join him if she chooses to do so. We do have freedom of speech in this country. But one despairs over the fact that typically these attacks show little imagination and seem to lower the level of discourse even further into the mire of personal vilification.

When a young woman is pilloried in public for having the audacity to testify before a political group on behalf of a legitimate concern — a concern that should be shared by those who claim to be “pro-life,” since abortions would be less common if pregnancies were prevented in the first place — we have clearly sunk to a new low. One can only hope we have learned something from all this. But even if we have, the chances are we haven’t learned how to express ourselves more clearly or how to raise the level of discourse above the mire. And in an election year we can expect more of the same.