Serendipity

After graduation from college I decided to take a year to clear my head and decide what I was going to do with the rest of my life. I took a job teaching at a private school for boys in New York and discovered that I loved teaching — but I wanted to teach at a higher level where, it seemed to me, I would be better challenged. And I also decided to teach philosophy because I loved it and  it would keep my mind alive. The problem is that I had no money. I applied to several graduate schools and was accepted, but I simply didn’t have the money to attend. So, flat feet and all,  I decided to join the Army.

At the time I was working at a boys camp in Maine during the Summers and the plan was to join in the Fall, after camp was over. But an older man who also taught at the private school had asked me to join him and his family at Big Wolf Lake in Upper New York before going off to the Army. I spent a few days with him and his wife and children who surprised me one morning by offering to finance my first year of graduate school! I kid you not. After that I was to be on my own, but at least this would allow me to get my foot in the door. How gracious! How generous! I was stunned! I immediately called the Chairman of the Philosophy Department at Northwestern where I had been accepted and asked if it was too late to join the Fall class. He assured me it was not and welcomed me aboard. The die was cast.

Needless to say, I considered myself the luckiest person on the face of the earth and I packed up my belongings in my used Volkswagen bug and left for parts unknown. “Go West, young man!” After a successful first year I was granted a University Fellowship that paid my way for the rest of my graduate career. But to add to the remarkable events of those years, in my second year I took a course in Plato’s late dialogues and met my wife. She was an undergraduate whose advisor allowed her to enroll in an upper-level philosophy course to fulfill a university requirement. After meeting her and falling in love with her I knew for certain that I was the luckiest man alive. We married soon thereafter and have been together ever since — through thick and thin.

I have often thought about how tiny things that seem at the time to be insignificant turn out to be the most important things in our lives. I might have gone into the Army (can you imagine??) or I might have decided that a trip to Big Wolf was a bit out of my way. After all, my family was in Richmond, Virginia — which was in the other direction. Or my wife might have selected a different course to fulfill that requirement — she was a Latin major and thought she ought to know a bit about Greek philosophy! Go figure. There were courses available to her other than an upper-level philosophy course about an ancient Greek’s obscure thoughts.

Have you ever had such remarkable things seemingly turn your life around? It does make you wonder sometimes. Call it luck or call it serendipity!

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Bifurcation

There is a host of informal fallacies, so-called, that most of us commit unknowingly every day. The most common of them is the ad hominem fallacy in which a person’s claim is dismissed because of the type of person putting forth the claim. Thus, we might reject the claim made by Jones because Jones is a narrow-minded cretin. The fallacy arises because even though Jones may, in fact, be a narrow-minded cretin, his claim int this case might be well founded. Attention is drawn away from the claim to the person making the claim, Hence it is fallacious reasoning.

But there is another fallacy that is also quite common and perhaps even more insidious in its way. It’s called the fallacy of bifurcation. It rests on the fact that an argument relies on a false dichotomy to draw its conclusion. Most disjunctions are loose, non-exclusive disjunctions, as in “I will have either soup or a sandwich for lunch. ” (I might have both.) Lose disjunctions allow for the middle ground. Some disjunctions do not allow of any middle ground, as in “either you live in New York or you don’t.” You can’t have it both ways. These are called “exclusive disjunctions” and they are very rare (even in this case one could both live in New York and not live in New York if he or she had homes in both New York and Minnesota). There is seldom a situation that does not allow of a middle ground: most disjunctions are non-exclusive, as in the case with the soup or the sandwich.

What all this is leading to is the observation that we have all (or most of us) fallen for the notion put forward by the dirty energy companies that we must either have dirty energy or we must have a weak economy. It’s usually in the form “either jobs or the economy.” This is a classic example of the fallacy of bifurcation. Experience has shown — as though common sense would not — that we can have it both ways. We can have clean energy and boost the economy at the same time. This has been proven in the solar industry where thousands of jobs have been created and, as I recently argued, it has been shown in places like Chicago where 139,800 jobs have been created in the clean energy industry. And yet we will continue to hear from Big Oil, for example, that we simply must continue to destroy the earth by constructing monstrosities like the Keystone Pipeline because it creates jobs — the implication, again, is that the only industry that can provide jobs is the dirty energy industry. The argument is clearly self-serving. But it is also persuasive because, like all fallacies, it rests on an emotional appeal. People fear the loss of jobs and it is that fear (coupled with a weak critical faculty) that results in their acceptance of what is at heart a weak argument.

In addition to the appeal to emotion that rests at the heart of what amount to dozens of common fallacies which results in their being so persuasive there is the fact that we don’t teach logic to many people any more. We don’t teach many things that would help them gain control of their minds so that smiling, glad-handed thugs would not take possession of them. We don’t teach Latin much any more, despite the fact that knowing  Latin helps us gain a better grasp of our own language and since language is essential to thought, it is thought that suffers in the end. If one wonders why old-timers like myself keep going on about the demise of contemporary education it might be worth a moment to consider the fact that by focusing on what the children in the classrooms want and tossing out essential subjects like logic and Latin (and history, mathematics, economics, literature, and even English) we deprive the young today of the ability tomorrow to see the fallacies that lie at the heart of so many appeals by unconscionable agents whose only desire is to gain a profit or otherwise make life easy for themselves at our expense.

Regressive Education

There’s a post going around on Facebook that shows a child sitting on a high chair in the corner with a dunce hat on his head. The caption reads “In 100 years we have gone from teaching Latin and Greek in the High Schools to teaching remedial English in the Colleges.” So many items on the internet, and especially Facebook, are mindless drivel, but this one makes a good deal of sense, though it is a bit simplistic. Adopting the model of A.S. Neill’s abortive “Summerhill” project in England, the birth of “Progressive” education in the 1930s in this country — which took the nation by storm in the late 1950s — has resulted in a regression of a system designed to improve young minds to a system designed to cater to the young and leave them pretty much untouched.  From the notion that teachers know best what their charges should learn, we have come to the point where we let the kids pretty much learn what (if anything) they want. And we make sure they have enough toys to make the process as pleasant as possible. Welcome to the age of entitlement! The notion that education is about knowledgeable elders helping young minds grow and develop has been lost in the process; for some reason we are now afraid to even suggest that anyone is smarter than anyone else.

I have blogged repeatedly about this issue and while this may allow me to let off steam, it has certainly not altered the situation one whit. Nor is it likely to do so. I know that. But it is clear that when a small country like Finland can lead all of the developed nations on earth in education and a rich, advanced nation like the United States lags far behind, there is something radically wrong with the system in place in this country. Finland pays their teachers higher salaries than the OECD average — to the point where only 10% of those who apply actually find a teaching position. Teaching is not a chore; it is a privilege. Teachers are themselves educated to the level of a Master’s Degree, and they are not required to take “methods” courses. They are given their heads and allowed to teach as they determine the situation and the children in their classes require. In a word teachers do not have a huge bureaucracy looking over their shoulders, dictating course work and watching their every move to make sure that they do their job as those in the education establishment see fit. Because teachers are not dredged from the bottom of college classes and paid a pittance, as they are in many states in this country, they are bright and deserving of the trust the parents put in them. It works. While our “progressive” education system struggles, kids in Finland, and in most other developed countries, have learned the value of a solid education and they make their parents proud. We, on the other hand, spend most of our time making excuses and apologizing for a system we refuse to acknowledge is broken.

So while the middle class slowly disappears behind a growing mountain of giant corporate interest and a few very wealthy people like the Koch brothers, and our Democracy is being swallowed up by a greedy, self-serving capitalist economy, the young people who might some day figure out a way out of this morass are being cheated by a system that puts them in crowded classrooms with underpaid and exhausted teachers and eventually dumps them out on the streets with no sense whatever which way they should turn because they cannot read the street signs.

Foreign Languages

Over a year ago I wrote a blog about “useless subjects” that are no longer taught in our colleges and high schools. Following the attack on fundamentals in education during the turbulent 60s, the shift toward practical subjects that could guarantee students jobs began. And it has persisted to this day, even though the jobs just aren’t there when the students graduate from college, and, strictly speaking, colleges have lost their sense of purpose altogether and have no idea whatever how to “sell” their programs to their “customers.” The notion that there are certain subjects that every educated person should know has been lost in the kerfuffle, and probably would be lost on most high school students today. But it deserves a moment’s reflection: what has been given up?

Back in the day (as we say) when I went to high school, two years of foreign language, usually Latin, were required for graduation. Even the tiny high school I attended in Bethel, Connecticut required two years of Latin for graduation. And we diagrammed sentences in English classes, we had to memorize poetry, and we had few, if any elective courses. The idea was that the teachers knew best what their students should learn. Further, all colleges worth their salt required two years of a foreign language for entrance — along with subjects like civics and American history, math and lab science. And in order to graduate from college, I was required to take four years of foreign language in which we studies grammar and syntax, translated from the foreign language (Greek, French, and German) into English, and came to know our own language a bit better. But after the assault on education in the 60s when we began to let the kids decide what they would like to study and basic requirements were replaced by “cake” courses, or those that were largely geared for guaranteed employment after graduation; the notion that certain courses were essential passed by the boards.

If foreign languages are taught any more in college or high school it is usually in the form of “conversational” language– designed to allow the student to get by in a foreign land, find the rest room or the nearest hotel, perhaps. Despite the studies that show that other animals communicate with one another, there is no evidence that any of these animals have a “language” in a formal sense of that term. The notion that one studies a foreign language in order to come to know his or her own language better has been lost in the clouds of rhetoric that have surrounded education in recent years. If we consider that language is perhaps the one thing that separates humans from the other animals  the loss of close studies of English and Latin, at least, may have cost us a great deal.

Much has been said about the dumbing down of the curriculum at the high school, college, and even the post-graduate levels — where remedial courses are now the norm and language requirements have gone by the boards. And it has been said by me in previous posts and by a number of very bright and concerned writers in recent years. But it is a message that falls on deaf ears, in many cases ears of those who have never studied their language very closely and who have no idea what they are missing. How could they? As the downward spiral continues, and we proceed along the path of vocational training and abandon altogether the ideals of educating the young, we will have fewer and fewer voices expressing concern about the things that really matter in bringing up the young and helping them take possession of their own minds. And just as Shakespeare’s English has become a foreign language for the typical college graduate these days, the ability to read and express one’s ideas coherently will be diminished to the point that we are all lost in a sea of mindless babble and we will have become less than human. Or has that horse already left the barn?