Cheating?

Back in the day when I was assigning readings for my classes the thing I hated most were the dreaded “Cliff’s Notes” that were readily available not only in the college bookstore but in many a box store and even in some of the Mom and Pop stores down the block. They were everywhere and they professed to give the student an encapsulated view of the assigned reading — which many students read instead of the original material assigned. From my perspective, the assigning of original material was central to my purpose. I wanted my students to walk with a great mind for at least a few steps before returning to the hum-drum of text books and parties. I realized they were just a few steps, but the material was chosen in order to give them a sense of what it was like to actually accompany a great mind at least for a bit. So I hated the “Cliff’s Notes.”

Recently a new beast has appeared on the horizon and it is called Open Textbook Library, an on-line aid to students that offers them a free look at great books without asking them to make the effort themselves to ferret out what the author has to say. That in itself is a problem, because it is precisely the ferreting-out that is most likely to start the thinking process and help the student along the way toward intellectual curiosity and enlightenment. Short-cuts always have seemed to me to be the path of least resistance and designed to cater to the lazy students who didn’t want to make the effort.

One of these Open Texts, Plato’s Republic, was recently reviewed on-line and an attempt was made by the reviewer to save the Idiot’s Guide to Plato from infamy. As the reviewer said:

The Intelligent Troglodyte’s Guide to Plato’s Republic takes the reader on an enjoyable tour of this classic work of Ancient Greek philosophy. Although reading Plato’s text can be quite difficult, this Guide is very helpful both in summarizing the important ideas Plato expressed and also in helping a reader to navigate the order in which they are presented and remember the overall narrative arc of the story. This Guide is not intended as a replacement of Plato’s text, nor as a “Cliff’s Notes” summary, nor again as a detailed commentary, but rather as a simple and accessible guide. The reader is advised to first get through sections of Plato’s text and only afterwards attend to the relevant sections of Drabkin’s text, which fills the role of a humble interpreter who turns complex foreign pronouncements into understandable statements.

Now Drabkin is the author of the Guide and he is said to be an expert in classical works such as the Republic. I will not quarrel with that, but the claim that this Guide is not a digital form of “Cliffs Notes” is highly doubtful. I have a number of problems with this endeavor and even with this review. To begin with, Plato’s Republic is one of the most accessible of Plato’s works. It is not a terribly difficult text and rewards energetic reading and the needed attempt to dig into a text and find the jewels of insight that made the work a classic to begin with. It’s one thing to have the student read a translation of the original — which is simply a matter of necessity for most of us. It is quite another to take the students by the hand and lead them to the main ideas and point so they will not have to find them for themselves. This may not be Cliff’s Notes, exactly, but the intent is the same: make things as easy for the student as possible so they will not be turned off by what they regard as a difficult task. Isn’t it just possible that it is precisely the difficulty of the task that is most valuable to the student’s intellectual development? The Greeks used to say “Nothing easy is worthwhile.” These Guides seem to be another attempt to make things easy. We can predict that it will make the endeavor worthless as well.

The problem is that Guides such as these, including Cliff’s Notes, while not designed to replace the original (as the reviewer correctly points out) do precisely that for the majority of those who use them. This strikes me as a form of cheating. Not on the student’s part, because they simply don’t know any better. But on the part of the instructor who is cheating the student by pointing out how he or she can avoid the task that is designed to help the student grow and mature as a reader and a thinker. The easy way is not the best way — though increasingly it appears to be the only way.

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Socratic Example

The figure of Socrates, the ancient Athenian philosopher who was unjustly executed, became a fixation in the mind of the young Plato who, it might be said, never got over the lesson he learned from his mentor. Socrates was a citizen of the Athenian democracy — through he preferred to distance himself from political life and focus, rather, on tending his soul in dialogue with the brightest and best young men around him. He could be found almost any day at the Piraeus deep in discussion with those young men about the nature of justice, wisdom, and courage. The young Plato was among those men.

During the height of the Peloponnesian War the Athenian democracy was dissolved and violently replaced by an oligarchy, the rule of fifty-one men, headed by thirty tyrants, who sought to determine the course of the war and dictate the political policies of the day. That oligarchic government determined to involve Socrates in their violence toward those who sympathized with the democratic government they had overthrown. Socrates refused and the oligarchy was itself overthrown not long after by the democratic government. The democrats then — seemingly resenting the fact that Socrates had shown himself to be above political machinations — decided to bring bogus charges against the man and tried him for “impiety and corrupting the young.”

The evidence against Socrates was thin at best — resting as it did on the facts that he insisted that a man couldn’t engage in politics and retain his integrity and that one or two of the corrupt men who had participated in the abortive experiment in oligarchy had been known to consort with Socrates. In any event he was tried and found guilty. He was given his choice of punishment and many thought he would simply exile himself from the city-state and they would be done with him. But he chose to drink hemlock which would end his life.

In the days leading up to his execution his friends, several of whom were wealthy and influential, sought to help him escape. But Socrates refused and in the end drank the cup and died quietly among his closest and dearest friends. In defending his actions he insisted that as a citizen of Athens he was bound by their laws — despite the fact that he knew in his case the laws were not justly interpreted: he was convicted on bogus charges by a jury of his peers who were resentful of the fact that he seemed aloof and somehow superior to them. In any event, his friends’ arguments were dismissed by Socrates and his determination to comply with the court’s decision is often used as an example of the necessity to obey laws despite the fact that those laws are unjust.

But this misses the point. which was that Socrates saw his membership in the political body as making demands upon him in the form of duties that he, who had enjoyed the privileges of citizenship all his life, was bound to obey — including the decision of the court. At his trial he had told the jury that if they insisted that he stop “teaching” as a condition of his being let off he would ignore the condition and continue to converse with young men (which he did not regard as teaching). He had no argument with the courts or with the law as such. His argument was against the misinterpretation of those laws and the actions of the court, the people who thought they were correctly applying the laws. But his quarrel with his accusers was not, in his view, sufficient to make him break the laws of his chosen home.

How different was this man from the president-elect we are about to see sworn into the highest office of this land! The man who insisted that if he lost the election he would raise Hell and refuse to acknowledge his opponent’s legitimacy. He would play the political game, but only if he was allowed to make the rules.

But, sadly, many of the more than 66 million voters who voted against him and who now regret the ascension into that high office of a man who is clearly unfit also want to refuse to acknowledge his legitimacy. There are tee shirts available that say “Trump is not my president.” But he is. We played the game and with the example of Socrates in front of us (and not the example of Donald Trump) we are bound by the rules of that game and must acknowledge his legitimacy, despite the fact that he lost the popular vote and almost certainly cheated in the process. Our system is designed to make the Electoral College the final court of appeal in the election of a president and, like it or not, the College duly cast their votes for a man many of us regard as the antithesis of what a president of this country should be. We need not embrace the man; but we must acknowledge him. My only hope is that he is not long in that office.

I am aware, of course, that there are serious questions about the legitimacy of the election, including the probable role of Russia in determining who our president would be, but until those questions have been answered (if indeed they are ever allowed to be answered) we must accept the fact that Donald Trump is the president of this democracy, until further notice. Bitter though the taste might be, we must bite the bullet. It is preferable, I would hope, to having to drink Hemlock!

 

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!

Critical Thinking

According to Arthur Koestler, who should know, there exists in the Grand Scheme of Things a hierarchy of truths. At the top there is mathematics and theoretical physics whose claims are easily corroborated and verified by mathematicians and physicists around the world, regardless of race, creed, or color. At the bottom (and here I interpolate) there are the headlines of the latest National Enquirer that scream at us from the checkout lanes of our local grocery store: “Hillary is a racist, bigot, and criminal!” We need to know how to differentiate among the types of claims — for they are all claims, some of them well-founded and others outrageous.

The sciences range downwards from physics to the biological sciences, geology, anthropology, the social sciences that rely on probability theory and therefore pass themselves off as exact sciences, to philosophy, history, and the like. Again, we need to know where we are on the hierarchy because each of these disciplines requires a different approach and different types of corroboration. History, for example, relies on first-hand testimony, written documents and independent corroboration from different sources, all regarded as reliable. The key is “corroboration.” The sciences and social sciences, even philosophy, require independent corroboration by others in the field to check on the accuracy of the claims being made. Did Caesar cross the Rubicon? Who says? What evidence is there to corroborate this claim? Thus the historian proceeds to provide us with an accurate picture of what has occurred in the past. The expert seeks to show that the claim is false. If it cannot be shown to be false after thorough study, we can accept it as true. Then he asks his fellow experts to duplicate his efforts and test the claim for himself or herself.

When the National Enquirer makes its outrageous claims we should (but seldom do) ask the same sorts of question: how can those claims be corroborated? Who makes the claims? Are those sources reliable? Can they even be tested? If so, how? These are the types of questions the lawyer asks in a trial when a person is facing possible felony charges and perhaps time in prison. We should all be so circumspect, equally suspicious and demanding of the truth and not satisfied with what are merely empty claims or accusations.

This is the job of critical thinking and it should be taught in all our schools and certainly in all our colleges and universities. We all tend to accept as true those claims that fit in nicely with our closely held beliefs, our belief-set as I call it. But the critical thinker will allow the possibility that a claim that does not fit in nicely with his belief-set might still be true. Those who lack critical thinking skills (whose numbers grow daily from the look of things) will believe whatever they are told on Fox News or read in the Enquirer. The problem is that those who believe whatever they hear or read without subjecting those claims to the tests of corroboration and verification are most likely to be lead astray by someone who, say, might want to steal their vote in an upcoming election, or sell them farmland in the Everglades. They fail to realize that something is not true simply because they want it to be true (it fits in nicely with their belief-set) or because the guy up there with the funny hair and the small hands says it is true. The fact that he said the opposite yesterday is lost on these people because they lack the critical filters that would weed out the falsehoods and lies and recognize the inconsistencies.

Critical thinking teaches us to have a healthy suspicion. Not that we will doubt all claims, but that we will suspect that those that seem outrageous might well be so. We will accept as true only those clams that can be corroborated and verified, like the scientist. We will also recognize among those claims that are scientific but outside our small field of knowledge that claims made by experts in the field, say scientists who have studied such things as climate change or the evolution for species over the millennia, are making claims that we ought to accept as true until or unless they are later shown to be false. We ought not to simply reject those claims because they don’t fit into our belief-set or because they make us feel uncomfortable.

In the long run, it pays to be critical and suspect that many, if not all, claims that are designed to sell us something (or someone) are probably not true, or at least that they demand further investigation and thought. They should not be accepted simply because we read them in our favorite newspaper or heard them on the News. That suspicion is healthy and it is what critical thinking is all about: making sure that we will not be mislead into accepting as true what is blatantly false — or electing a fool as our president.

The Sublime

The great German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, thought there were two things that were sublime: the starry sky at night and the moral law within. Increasingly, it seems to me, we are losing sight of both. Our collective attention is drawn away from the starry sky toward the electronic toys in our hands and the TV sets in our living rooms; and our introspection, such as it is, is directed toward getting in touch with our feelings. Kant thought we might capture the sublimity of nature by looking outward; we have decided it is more interesting to look at ourselves.

But, more to the point, the moral law that Kant speaks of is the single point of differentiation between animals and humans. We know a great deal more about animals than Kant did but none of our knowledge suggests that they have a sense of duty, a moral imperative to do the right thing. Oddly, some do it instinctively — like the macaque monkeys who refuse to subject their kind to pain even when promised a tasty reward, whereas humans most often do not refuse if an authority figure prompts them. But no animal other than humans, so far as we now know, can reason about right and wrong and determine which is which (whether or not we do so is another matter entirely). Kant only says that we have this capacity. It is a capacity, it seems to me, that we are increasingly unwilling or unable to exercise.

Morality for Kant consists in making choices, doing our duty, what we are called to do as rational beings. We have the capacity to determine what we want to do and distinguish between that and what we ought to do. The two are often in opposition to one another, most often. And there’s the rub! Most of us tend to focus on what we want to do and seldom ask ourselves what it is we ought to do — or so it seems. We are, as Martin Luther King might have it, losing sight of the moral high ground. This is true of us as individuals and as a nation. This is what Colin Kaepernick’s protest is all about, though few seem to realize it and see only a desecration of the American flag.

According to Kant the determination of what in a particular case is our duty is determined by the “categorical imperative,” which sounds a good deal like the Golden Rule when you come right down to it. It requires that we adopt rules that would apply to anyone anywhere. John Rawls, the Harvard philosopher, referred to “the original position.” What would we do if we were not privileged white folks with silver spoons in our mouths? What would we do in the original position when we have no idea what is to become of us, whether we will turn out black, white, red, as wealthy or as homeless people on the streets? If we adopted the perspective of the original position when faced with choices we would most often do the right thing: the thing we would have others do as well.

As it happens, of course, in this sophisticated age of ours we have reduced the starry sky to a puzzle to be solved and tend to ignore the moral law within just as we seem to have lost sight of the moral high ground — preoccupied as we are with the here and now of immediate gratification. In any event, all of this philosophical palaver is far too complicated for people who increasingly eschew reason altogether and prefer to simply go with the flow, do what feels right. Who’s to say? we ask.

My answer to this question has always been: anyone with a brain and the willingness to use it to ask the pivotal moral question, what should I do? Animals, it appears, cannot ask themselves that question. Growing numbers of humans refuse to do so. But in that refusal and our insistence on grasping the mysteries of the universe in a mathematical formula we lose our grasp on the two things that make our world sublime. And in doing so we reduce the glorious world and the better part of ourselves to dull, flat surfaces.

Making Widgets (Once More)

We are having a hot, tropical summer here in Minnesota and I decided to repost a previous entry rather than simply repeat what I have already said in order to avoid getting even more overheated. This post deals with my favorite topic, the failure of our education system (which I think is at the root of many of our current difficulties and helps us to understand why a moron could be seriously considered for the highest office in the land.) Please note that I have made some subtle changes to update the entry.

Some time ago I wrote a post about the need to make distinctions in order to be clear about the things we discuss. One of the distinctions I mentioned is that between “wants” and “needs.” We rarely make the distinction and that leads to major confusion, especially when raising our kids, forming policies, or selling goods. In the latter case, for example, we are told that people need the product they are buying when, in fact, they may simply want the product.m Or they may not even want it at all until an ad convinces them they do. One of the things marketing people are very good at doing is creating wants and they do this by insisting that those wants are needs. (Do we really need a 5 hour energy drink??)

Surprisingly, educators do the same thing. They talk about what the kids need when they are really talking about what the kids want. It’s easier to determine wants than needs, because we can simply ask the kids: “what do you want?” Or we can continue to dumb-down the curriculum and provide them with electronic toys until they stop complaining. When it comes to needs, the kids don’t have the slightest clue. Sad to say, neither do many of their teachers and professors. And this is a very important point, because it leads us to the central reason why education is in deep do-do: those who are in a position to determine what the kids really need are either unaware of what those needs are or fail to act on that knowledge and fall into the marketing trap of simply determining what the kids want and then attempting to meet those fickle wants by insisting that they are providing the things the kids really need. It’s the path of least resistance. The confusion is widespread and until it is cleared up there is little likelihood that those who teach will lead those who learn rather than the other way around. (Note the interesting parallel here with parenting.)

But there’s another distinction that we seldom make and that is the distinction between education and training. I have discussed this confusion in previous blogs but have never focused on the key difference — until now. Training involves teaching learners how to do something, say, make widgets. Education involves understanding why we might want to make widgets in the first place. This is a critical difference, and the fact that education has devolved into job training is a serious blunder, because we need folks now more than ever who ask the troubling questions — why DO we make widgets?

There is a growing number of company CEOs who insist that educators are failing because the people coming out of college lack the ability to communicate, read and write memos, and speak before an audience. These highly paid corporate bosses talk a great deal about the need for these young people to have a broader, “liberal education,” though what they mean is that the folks they hire should be more effective at their jobs. However, at the level at which people are hired the message to hire broadly educated employees has failed to filter down and the initial search is simply for college graduates who can do a particular job, who can make widgets. The computer apps these recruiters use tend to screen out applicants who have majored in, say, philosophy, because presumably those people cannot make widgets (even though they could be trained to do so in a matter of weeks [days?]). So the job market looks bleak for graduates in such subjects as philosophy, literature, and history, because those folks are weeded out by a process that is designed to assure companies that the people hired can do meaningless jobs without the companies themselves having to spend money training them: the colleges are now expected to turn out people to make widgets, not ask why those widgets are being made in the first place.

Thus the CEOs who speak about the need for liberally educated employees don’t really mean it. The last thing they want is employees who ask why they are making widgets. They want workers who are already trained and can effectively make and market the products. The irony is that those who stop to ask the troubling questions would make the best employees in the long run because it is those people who can not only learn how to make and market the products, but they can also figure out how to improve those products as the world changes and demands for new products arise — as they most assuredly will. Because the only certain thing about the future is that things will change. And this is why America needs educated citizens, not simply those trained to make widgets.

Educate For Freedom

I have blogged a number of times (some would say “endlessly”) about the shortcomings of our educational system. It is a topic close to my heart, given that I spent all of my adult life in schools and colleges. I have even written a book about the nature of education, focusing mostly on higher education (so-called) but also mentioning in passing what seems to be going wrong in the lower grades.

In any event, I have been consistent in my defense of a liberal education at the collegiate level — though as Robert Hutchins said many years ago there is no reason why we couldn’t pursue a liberal education at the lower grades. And there are some schools that have actually returned to the fundamental notion of the seven liberal arts to form the core of their grade-school curriculum for kids. But, by and large, the liberal arts, which many confuse with the Humanities, are an intellectual challenge and seem to a great many students and their parents to be irrelevant to their real-world needs after college, not practical, not the kind of thing that will lead to a job and success in later life. I would challenge that.

I recently chatted with a professor of cardiology at the Mayo Clinic who majored in philosophy as an undergraduate. When I mentioned that most of today’s students avoid such subjects as impractical he said that philosophy was the most practical course of study he had ever taken and he found himself every day drawing on his undergraduate major at Vanderbilt University. I have also known liberal arts graduates who have been successful in the world of investment banking, business, the ministry, and law. It provides a broad base of study that allows the student to take different directions as times change.

We have known for years that young people growing up in the work force change their jobs many times before they are 40. Nowadays the “millenialists” change jobs even more — perhaps because they don’t like being told what to do! This is a spoiled generation, to be sure, used to getting what they want when they want it. If it requires real work, many are simply not interested. And the liberal arts require real work.

Let’s be clear at the outset, however, that the liberal arts include not only the Humanities but also the sciences. Originally they formed the trivium of grammar, logic, and rhetoric and the quadrivium of geometry, music, astronomy, and arithmetic. Note the heavy emphasis on mathematics and science (music being regarded as a mathematical science, carefully ordered as it is and reflecting as it does the harmony of the universe!) These subjects seem esoteric these days and those seven original liberal arts — “liberal” because they free the mind held captive by bias, immaturity and shrunken perspective — have given birth to hundreds of college courses all of which claim to free the mind. But, as we know, most of those subjects are really job-training in disguise; they cater to the students’ current whims while putting blinders on them thereby forcing them into a narrow track from which they find it very difficult to escape later on.

But the original liberal arts were designed to free the minds of the young and open to them new horizons to explore. As I like to say, they put the young in possession of their own minds. This seems especially appropriate today, given the changes in career paths mentioned above. The liberal arts prepare the student for a world of change, and change is the only thing we can be certain about in this world of ours. If we ask (demand?) of the young that they take subjects that require that they use their minds, deepen their understanding, gain the ability to manipulate the symbols of mathematics and language, and learn about their past we can expect that they will be best prepared for this changing world.

The claim is often heard that those who follow such a course of study will not be able to find work after graduation; there is growing evidence that this is untrue. In addition, for those students who want to advance in the work place, it has become increasingly clear that a liberal education is extremely beneficial. As a recent study by the Association of American Colleges and Universities tells us:

The majority of employers agree that having both field-specific knowledge and skills and a broad range of skills and knowledge is most important for recent college graduates to achieve long-term career success. Few think that having field-specific knowledge and skills alone is what is most needed for individuals’ career success.
80 percent of employers agree that, regardless of their major, all college students should acquire broad knowledge in the liberal arts and sciences. . . .
When read a description of a 21st-century liberal education, a large majority of employers recognize its importance; 74 percent would recommend this kind of education to a young person they know as the best way to prepare for success in today’s global economy.

Moreover, students who study the liberal arts will be able to adapt should they want to change jobs or if they should happen to be “let go” by an unfeeling company that feels the need to “downsize.” The best possible education for now and the future is a liberal education. The evidence is out there.

Losing Our Faculties

When philosophers first started exploring the human mind in a study that eventually became psychology, there was virtual unanimity that the human mind was comprised of a number of “faculties.” This eventually became known as “faculty psychology,” which, I am given to understand, is no longer accepted by all members of the psychology fraternity. I, however, find it most helpful in attempting to understand myself and my fellow humans.  Two of the human  faculties that have received a great deal of attention over the years are memory and imagination and much of the effort in the schools in bygone days was devoted to developing both of these faculties. But no longer.

Students are seldom asked to memorize passages from poetry or literature or even the times-tables in arithmetic: it is all available on the student’s i-pod. Whatever needs to be known can be looked up and there seems to be no need to develop the child’s memory, which is a shame, since memory is an integral part of human intelligence. But even more to the point is the lapse in attention to the human imagination, which is an essential part of being human. I have touched on this before, but it bears repeating. Besides, I have another point to make.

Take sex. In reading Balzac’s Cousin Bette recently the point was driven home by the circuitous way the author has of describing the wiles of his very sultry and sexy protagonist Valérie Marneffe who, while a married woman, manages to entertain three lovers at the same time. She is a remarkably beautiful and talented woman! But Balzac merely suggests this; he does not lay it all out there for us to lap up. He relies on the power of suggestion and the lively imagination of the reader to construct the complete picture while provided with mere hints. That’s the way things were done in his day — the nineteenth century — even in France! Take the following description of Valérie’s seductive attentions to one of her lovers, the wealthy and very bourgeois Célestin Carvel. He appears before her deeply troubled by a scene he has just witnessed and Valérie is determined to get his mind back on more important things, namely, herself. As Carvel enters her bedroom, Valérie is having her hair combed by her maid.

“Reine [her maid] that’ll do for today. I’ll finish my hair myself. Give me my Chinese dressing-gown, for my Monsieur looks as rum as an old Mandarin. . . Valerie took her wrap, under which she was wearing her vest, and slid into the dressing gown like a snake under its tuft of grass. . . .[Later] she struck a pose in a fashion that was enough to lay Carvel wide open, as Rabelais put it, from his brain to his heels; she was so funny and bewitching, with her bare flesh visible through the mist of fine lawn.”

You get the picture — I hope. Here we have a sketch that the writer presents to the reader allowing him or her to fill in the details. It is sufficient to create an image that Balzac wants and it is very effective. But it relies on the reader’s imagination. Without that, there is no picture. And this is true of art generally: it requires an effort on the part of the reader or spectator to complete the picture, whether it is drawn, painted, or written — an effort of imagination.

But we are no longer asked to make that effort. The above scene would be written today in lurid detail in an effort to shock and stimulate — but not to ask the reader to imagine. The writer or painter, or photographer, sets it all out there for the viewer to see in graphic detail, the more vivid the better. This is certainly the case when it comes to sex and violence, but it is true generally of the media today that seek to sensationalize all human emotions. Lost is subtlety and suggestion. Lost, too, is the sense of mystery that surrounds the unmentioned. The human imagination is in danger of becoming flaccid, emaciated, unable to stand on its own, much less run and leap. As Henry Adams would have it, “. . . the feebleness of our fancy is now congenital, organic, beyond stimulant or strychnine, and we shrink like sensitive plants from the touch of a vision or spirit.” And he noted that long before i-pods and video games!

But so what, you might ask? The answer is that the human imagination is necessary for the possibility of ethical behavior. This is something that is seldom noted but which is worth pondering. The so-called “Golden Rule” which lies at the heart of so many religions and ethical systems requires that we imagine the effects of our own actions and treat others as we would imagine they might treat us in the same circumstances. Without imagination there can be no sympathy, much less empathy, which many would regard as central to ethical actions. We do the right thing by others because we can imagine ourselves in the same straits and we care enough to act to relieve their suffering. Again, without the imagination, there can be no action.

Thus while the entertainment industry works hard at devising new tricks to present to masses of viewers the latest in technical expertise and trickery, they threaten to render impotent the human imagination. Not only will art suffer in the end (as it has already) and our lives become shallow, we are in danger of losing our faculties — not only memory, but, more importantly, imagination. The mental faculties are like muscles: they need to be exercised to gain strength.

Why Great Books?

Many years ago when “Rosemary’s Baby” was the talk of the country the movie appeared in the town of Marshall near where I live. The local paper was full of letters to the editor from local zealots who were urging people to stay away from the movie — including at least one who proudly admitted that he hadn’t seen it himself and was determined not to do so. That same sort of closed-mindedness is reflected in the outspoken criticism by a great many college teachers of literature in this country who are promoting postmodern literature and trashing the “great books” which they insist are the work of “dead, white, European males” and thus not worth reading. Like the letter-writer, a number of them have apparently not even bothered to read the books they condemn! One might expect closed-mindedness of small-town zealots but one would hope for a broader view from supposedly educated people who are responsible for opening the minds of the students in their charge.

The criticism of the great books tends to center not only on those who wrote them but also on the notion of “greatness” which, it is said, cannot be attributed to any works — except in an arbitrary manner. I have always disagreed with this claim, since there are criteria of greatness which some works of art and literature exhibit and the majority do not. Great books, especially great works of literature, are exceptionally well written, with a rich vocabulary, vivid descriptions, engrossing plots, and characters we recognize immediately. Further, they are rich with insights into the human condition and often contain profound reflections on the world we share in common. They are not just “stories;” they exhibit a kind of intuitive truth that simply cannot be found anywhere else. They make us pause and reflect. And there are great books in philosophy and science which may not be as well written, but have provided us with some of the seminal ideas that have helped shape our world, not to mention our nation’s Constitution — and even brought about revolutions.  Such books are classics in the sense that they are seminal and they ring true today no less than they did when they were written, no matter who wrote them. They are the books that have been read by the exceptional minds that have preceded us; we seem determined to marginalize them — which is our mistake.

I have blogged about the wisdom of George Eliot so I won’t repeat here what I have already said. But Eliot was a superb writer, recognized in her day as one of the brightest and wisest of women who spent her declining years responding to letters from innumerable readers seeking her advice. But there are a great many authors of novels and plays who have exhibited remarkable insight and wisdom as well — and humor, such as Shakespeare’s famous line in Henry VI, Part II where we are told “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” Or this, in King Henry V, “The saying is true, ‘The empty vessel makes the greatest sound.”‘  And also Edith Wharton, whose sometimes biting satire leaves one’s head spinning — as in this description of a type: “Mrs. Ballinger is one of those ladies who pursue Culture in bands as though it were dangerous to meet it alone.” Wharton, who knew whereof she spoke, was able to strip the New York upper crust if its pretense and leave it shivering in the cold.

From his remarkable novel, Lost Illusions, I add Balzac’s characterization of a fop who “always behaved with distant politeness, cold, a little supercilious, like a man not in his proper place and waiting the favors of power. He allowed his social talents to be guessed at, and these had everything to gain by remaining unknown.” Pure genius (even in translation!). Like so much humor, these descriptions have the ring of truth in them. We all know women like Mrs. Ballinger, for example. But there is also the disturbing observation about the rapaciousness of humans by writers like the extraordinary Joseph Conrad, writing in a second language, in Heart of Darkness:

“The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. . . . The Eldorado Exploring Expedition . . .was reckless without hardihood, greedy without audacity, and cruel without courage; there was not an atom of foresight or of serious intention in the whole batch of them, and they did not seem aware these things are wanted for the work of the world. To tear treasure out of the bowels of the land was their desire, with no more purpose at the back of it than there is in burglars breaking into a safe.”

I hesitate to cite passages in the great works of philosophy, but one cannot do better than reflect on the early dialogues of Plato to which John Dewey said the rest of philosophy was mere footnotes. And there is Alexis de Tocqueville who visited this country for nine months in the early nineteenth century and then wrote the most perceptive book on Democracy in America that has ever been written, showing us all our warts and flaws along with the remarkable strengths that arose from the experiment we were then engaged in, such as the following: “I think that the democratic communities have a natural taste for freedom; left to themselves they will seek it, cherish it, and view any privation of it with regret. But for equality their passion is ardent, insatiable, incessant, invincible; they call for equality in freedom; and if they cannot obtain that they still call for equality in slavery.” Or Mark Twain who had so many penetrating insights into the human condition: “The fact that man knows right from wrong proves his intellectual superiority to the other creatures; but the fact that he can do wrong proves his moral inferiority to any creature that cannot.” And so it goes.

The pages of great books are filled with such insights and well crafted, profound words that cannot but change those who read them and take them to heart. And that is what ultimately comprises greatness in art: the power to change those who come into contact with it, a power it does not lose as the years pass. Great books, like great art, invite and reward repeat visits. Thus, those who would displace the works of Dead White European Males on the grounds of political correctness had better make damned sure that after reading those works they can find words of equal power and worth in the writings they substitute, because it is a zero-sum game. For every work chosen one is ignored.

Science and Truth

There are still those among us who deny that scientific truth has any sort of hold on free minds. We can believe anything we want and call “true” anything we find comfortable they maintain. But while we can certainly believe anything we want to — there are those among us who think the earth is flat, after all — we are really not in a position to reject as mere “opinion” scientific truths that have the weight of evidence and, more importantly, predictive power, on their side.

If this hasn’t been clear for some time, the recent spate of tornadoes in the South of this continent, together with the devastating category 5 typhoon that recently hit the Philippines should shut the mouths and open the minds of the naysayers, since meteorologists predicted both of these terrible events quite accurately and in a timely fashion. It should but almost certainly will not. While meteorology is not an exact science, given the huge numbers of variables that make prediction difficult, recent technologies together with the satellites that clutter our skies make weather prediction remarkable accurate. And it is predictive power, more than anything else, that makes scientific truth undeniable. Given our uncertainties about the future, any body of knowledge or method of investigation that makes prediction more and more accurate demands our assent. We can continue to say we don’t believe in evolution or the “big bang” theory, but when the scientist brings to the table his charts and graphs and — more importantly — his predictions that continue to ring true, we really must abandon superstitious nonsense and embrace truth, even if it is terribly uncomfortable.

Plato was the first thinker in the West to organize his thoughts into systematic wholes, worry about inconsistencies and contradictions and seek coherent truth. Thus began the transition from religion to philosophy in the West. Aristotle married this concern with an empirical turn of mind and invented what we now call “science.” Even though so much of what Aristotle thought was certain has been proven false — such as the Ptolemaic notion that the earth is stationery and the sun and planets revolve around it — his falsehoods were rooted out by an improved empirical method forged in the minds and laboratories of such people as Copernicus, Descartes, Galileo and Newton. Scientific truth is simply not to be denied and science itself, while certainly not all-embracing (it ignores deep and hidden truths of the human heart that are not open to measurement and quantification) is the best humans have come up with so far.

Thus, the ignoramuses, in Congress especially, who deny global warming are not only flying in the face of reason and science and ignoring salient truths, they are putting human lives at risk by denying the scientific certainties that the planet is warming and will soon become uninhabitable for human and animal life. All in the name of power and profits. One can understand the craving for more and more money — humans by and large seem to be a greedy and stupid lot — but one must also realize that there is a time when certain truths can no longer be denied and time has arrived to begin to try to reverse a process that we humans have helped to bring to the kindling point.