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.

Emotional Honesty

I recently posted a brief discourse on restraint in which I denigrated the notion of emotional honesty as that concept is used today. I should be clear that I am not opposed to emotional honesty, I am opposed to the notion that the only way to behave in an emotionally honest way is to behave like an animal. True, animals are emotionally honest, we must suppose, but that is not by choice. The human tendency to display honesty in the form of animal behavior is a choice we seem to have made.

I suspect the notion that it is somehow a good thing to express our emotional honesty in this manner arises from a misreading of Sigmund Freud who wrote a great deal about “repression.” Later psychologists, in their attempts to develop Freud’s theory, argued that repression is an unhealthy thing and it would be healthier to be as open and honest  about our emotions as possible. The key here is that in order to be mentally healthy we need to be aware of our emotion states, not necessarily to express them openly. If we are mad, we need to acknowledge that fact and not repress it. In fact, Freud distinguishes between “proper” and “primal” repressions.  We need to know just what it is that is being repressed and why.

In Freud’s system it is the id that is repressed, that element of the human psyche that operates under what Freud called “the pleasure principle.” Many who read Freud reduce this to our sexual urges and those are certainly included, but they do not exhaust the urges of the id which includes such mundane things as the urge to eat when we are hungry and strike out when we are mad. We are talking about primal urges.

The healthy individual, according to Freud, seeks to balance the urges of the id with the restrictions of the ego and the super ego — the notion of balance going back to the Greeks, if you can imagine. The most productive way to do this is through “sublimation,” a term Freud borrowed from Nietzsche. When we sublimate the primitive urges which we all experience, we direct them away from their intended object (we don’t hit the Trump supporter) and redirect those urges into creative outlets such as art, philosophy, science, for example, or simply redecorating the living room, going for a run — or, perhaps, writing a blog.

The notion that it is healthy to behave like an animal is therefore a misreading of Freud and completely ignores the fact that repression of those basic urges is necessary if civilization is to survive. In fact, it is through the sublimation of the id that civilization arose in the first place. People need to live together in relative harmony and this is not possible if they are releasing their basic urges every time they are felt. The important distinction here is the acknowledgment of basic urges, which is necessary for mental health and the expression of those urges which reduces the human to the animal — which we all are, but which we presumably seek to rise above: no one seriously wants to live in Hobbes’ state of nature in which life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”

Thus, when a person (any person, even the president) gives immediate vent to his basic urges, or when the athlete pounds his chest like a Great Ape, he is expressing his emotions, he is being “emotionally honest” in only a restricted sense of that term. More to the point, he is not being all he can be as a human being. When he screws up and apologizes or taps his chest and says “my bad,” he is. The difference is important is we are to grasp just where we stand as human beings. After all, we are living in a precarious civilization that is trending toward dissolution if we do not make every effort to sustain it. And that requires repression, or at the very least, restraint.

The Ad Hominem

I recently got involved in an exchange with a fellow blogger on the topic of violence and its possible causes. In the course of the discussion we got off-topic a bit as he took me to task for appealing to Freud’s notion of the “reality principle,” which I regard as one of Freud’s most important contributions to human psychology. The discussion became a bit testy, if not downright acrimonious (clearly my fault) because I accused him of committing the ad hominem fallacy. He was prepared to reject all of Freud’s contributions because he has read that Freud’s “discoveries” [his quotation marks] were stolen from other thinkers.

I do apologize for being testy and realize that I must tone down my comments when I get my shackles up — as they are when I hear Freud wrongly accused. There is no question but that many of Freud’s insights (and for heaven’s sake let’s stop calling them “discoveries” in scare quotes!) came from the poets. In fact, on his death-bed he acknowledged his debt to the poets. It inspired me to write a post on “Freud and the Poets” which included the following paragraph:

Late in his life, as he was dying from the agonies of cancer and insisting that he only be treated with an occasional aspirin, Sigmund Freud noted that his “discovery” of the human unconscious mind was down to the poets.  As he wrote, “Not I,  but the poets, discovered the unconscious.” By the word “poet” he meant artists who work with words, such as Shakespeare and Dostoevsky — the latter having written what Freud regarded as the greatest novel ever. Indeed, Shakespeare, as we all acknowledge, provides innumerable insights into the human condition and Dostoevsky not only explores the human unconscious mind but can be said to have discovered the duality in the human mind. His first novel, The Double, depicts a man who gradually loses his mind and goes to work to find he is already there.

Please note my use of the quotation marks around the notion of Freud’s “discoveries,” but there is no scare involved! There is simply the fact that he borrowed, as do we all, some of the essential insights that went into the making of his system. And that word “system” is key, because it was Freud, and Freud alone, who systematized those insights into a coherent model for explaining human neurosis and psychosis. The insights of the poets are the necessary conditions for Freud’s contributions to psychology, but they are not sufficient. It took the mind of a genius to put the pieces together to form a whole.

But as far as the charge that my fellow blogger committed the ad hominem fallacy goes the charge strands, despite his denial, because even if we insist that Freud stole all of his ideas that is no reason whatever for rejecting his system outright. This is clearly an attack on the man — not his ideas. The fact that his insights were borrowed, or stolen, has nothing whatever to do with the fact that they help, as part of the systematic whole, to explain human behavior. Freud clearly borrowed from Schiller, Goethe, Nietzsche, and Schopenhauer as well as the two named in my above quote, but his system stands on its own feet: it requires that it be tested in the arena of human intercourse to see if it helps relieve pain and suffering, to help human beings recover form various sicknesses. And it does work as there are still a large number of psychologists who employ Freud’s methods despite the fact that it is popular these days to reject most, if not all of whet he says, Feminists, for example, don’t like his notion of “penis envy,” and his Victorian attitude toward women; behaviorists think his system too cumbersome. The fact remains that it explains a great deal and can help us better understand what is going in the minds and hearts of ourselves and our fellow humans.

The key to the ad hominem fallacy is the irrelevance of the critique. It is a non sequitur. The attack on the man (or the woman) who puts forward an argument is beside the point when it comes to the argument itself. A complete nut job could come up with a brilliant argument to establish the most implausible conclusion. If the argument holds up to critical scrutiny then it stands despite its source. If Freud’s system is inaccurate or somehow wrong, then it needs to be shown not that he borrowed ideas from others, but that those ideas as he worked them into his system simply do not work.

The best attack on Freud’s system I have ever come across is by thinkers like Carl Popper who reject it because it is not scientific: it cannot be proved wrong. And scientific systems must be provable and/or capable of being shown to be wrong, i.e., disproved. Freud’s cannot. Scientific or not, the Freudian scheme is seminal and extremely helpful in better understanding the human predicament.

 

Could This Be It?

I think I am finally beginning to understand why so many people have been drawn to Donald Trump, and it is not all about the economy. It has baffled me and I have worked through several possibilities, because I do think it important to know why so many people are willing to follow someone who is obviously a seriously flawed personality. Accordingly, I have enlisted the help of an unlikely source, Arthur Schopenhauer, a nineteenth century philosopher whose book The World As Will And Idea influenced, among others, Joseph Conrad and Sigmund Freud.

Schopenhauer is convinced that the will is the fundamental feature of the human animal, indeed of all animals. As he says in this regard:

“Rather it [the Will] retains everywhere its identical nature and shows itself in the form of great attachment to life, care for the individual of the species, egoism, and regardlessness of all others, together with the emotions that spring from these. Even in the smallest insect the will is present, complete and entire; it wills what it wills as decidedly and completely as a man. The difference lies merely in what it wills, i.e., the motives, which, however, are the affair of the intellect.”

The intellect seeks to control will (which is primary) and sits, according to Schopenhauer, like a lame man on the shoulders of a strong blind man whose direction the lame man seeks to point out — with differing degrees of success. The success of the lame man’s direction depends in large measure on education. As Schopenhauer tells us:

“Knowing. . . has multifarious functions, and never takes place without effort, which is required to fix the attention and make clear the object, and at a higher stage is certainly needed for thinking and deliberation; therefore it is also capable of great improvement through exercise and education.”

It follows from this that if a person fails to educate the intellect he is willful but blind.  He becomes, in the words of Thomas Jefferson, “all body and no mind” (referencing Kings). It’s not so much that he will not think; he cannot think. There is clinical evidence in this regard that kids who play with electronic toys these days lose the ability to grasp a hypothetical sentence, among other things: they simply don’t see the connections. Seeing logical connections is central to analysis and synthesis, the basic elements in human thought.

And this is where we can begin to understand the success of a man like Donald Trump who is all will and weak intellect. His minions sense their kinship with this man and they ignore completely the warnings of those who know better, because they cannot grasp what the critics are pointing out; moreover, they fear and suspect anyone who is unlike themselves, especially those who use their minds and can grasp such fundamental distinctions as that between truth and falsity. Those distinctions do not exist for those who are simply the embodiment of pure will. Thus, Trump’s cavalier dismissal of “educated people.”

This may sound harsh and even a little bit self-serving. But consider the strange fascination this man holds for thousands. And consider how easily they dismiss the claims that the man is untrustworthy and a liar — since for them truth is defined by the will, it is whatever the will is drawn to instinctively. Thus, this man appears to them to be “honest,” in that his emotions are on the surface and available to all: he is embodied will.  Observations about the man’s shortcomings do not translate into words that can be comprehended by those who share those same shortcomings.

I have said all along that Trump’s success is an indictment of our educational system, but this goes even deeper. It goes to the fact that thousands of people in this country not only lack an education (and I am not speaking about schooling), but also have felt themselves excluded from the table of those whose reason directs them to goals the uneducated  simply cannot possibly be expected to understand, much less achieve.

Schopenhauer seems to be describing perfectly the man who is our president-elect:

“. . . we find in many men a strong, i.e., decided, resolute, persistent, unbending, wayward, and vehement will, combined with a very weak and incapable understanding, so that every one who has to do with them is thrown into despair, for their will remains inaccessible to all reason and ideas, and is not to be got at, so that it is hidden, as it were, in a sack, out of which it wills blindly.”

Those who “have to do with him” are those who would offer the man advice, not his mindless minions who also follow him (from a distance) “blindly.” We are talking about two distinct types of humans here, though this may sound harsh. There are those who have developed intellect to varying degrees, depending on “experience and education.” And there are those who are more or less the embodiment of will, undirected and filled with anger, hatred, and fear — the emotions that help define will for Schopenhauer. The two types are almost certainly incapable of fully understanding or communicating with one another: reasoning is lost on those with diminished  intellect,  just as those who can reason find it incomprehensible that so many could follow a man like Donald Trump.

Now, to be sure, this analysis leans heavily on the authority of a nineteenth century philosopher whom very few have read or even heard of. But if we take his deliberations as  a starting point we can begin to form a hypothesis that helps us to grasp the nature of human nature and the manifold differences there are among us all — and the fact that a great many people in this country do indeed follow blindly one of their kind who seems to them to be offering them hope and direction.

The Man And His Art

Many people avoid reading Fyodor Dostoevsky because they are put off by the Russian names. This is a shame, because he is one of the greatest writers of all time and some of his novels rank among the best the human mind has yet to come up with. In fact, no one less that Sigmund Freud said that The Brothers Karamazov, perhaps Dostoevsky’s best known novel, is the greatest novel ever written. Well, Freud would say that; it involves patricide, one of Freud’s favorite themes. But then many agree with Freud and so far as I know these critics don’t have any hidden psychological theories to confirm. Dostoevsky simply could write and his novels reveal a great deal of us to ourselves — perhaps more than we might choose to know — and about the world in which we live.

Great novels are not all about plot, to be sure. But if they were, many people would say  that Dostoevsky’s life is even more captivating than any of his novels. As a young man he dared to meet with some of his fellow students to discuss anarchistic ideas at a time when Russia was suffering from paranoia under the Czar and as the revolution was brewing beneath the calm surface of Russian life. He and his friends were caught, tried, and found guilty. He was sentenced to death and moments before the firing squad shot him dead he was pardoned by a “humane” Czar — a device apparently designed to turn Dostoevsky’s affections toward Mother Russia and away from revolutionary ideas.  The version of the story I read was that a soldier came riding up to the scene of the execution on his horse with a pardon in his hand just as the firing squad was taking aim. Whether this is true or not, and despite the fact that it had to be traumatic, the ploy may have worked, since the author became increasingly conservative in his later life — but not before he spent five years in Siberia in lieu of execution. He later wrote The House of The Dead expressing some of the horrors he himself experienced in prison. But this was not his only largely biographical novel: as I shall explain in a moment, he later wrote another one out of necessity.

After prison, perhaps as a result of the traumas he had suffered,  he became a compulsive gambler and also suffered from epilepsy. His gambling placed him in debt time after time and he lived from hand to mouth for many years as he developed his distinctive writing style and began writing short novels, exhibiting a fascination with odd psychological types and conditions, such as schizophrenia. His first novel, The Double, is about a man who gradually goes mad and one day goes to work to find himself already there! But Dostoevsky’s gambling placed him in the debt of his publishers who advanced him money on future publications until one crafty publisher gave him a large advance on the condition that he agree to sign over all his past and future works if he failed to meet a deadline to deliver a novel of roughly 200 pages by a specified date. He gambled away the advance and fell behind the writing of the novel until he realized that he couldn’t possibly meet the deadline as the novel he had started was becoming a major work, well over 200 pages. He hired a stenographer and dictated a shorter novel in the mornings which would meet the terms of his agreement with his publisher. His stenographer spent the afternoons writing up what he dictated in the mornings, as Dostoevsky spent those afternoons working on the longer novel — Crime and Punishment. He finished the shorter novel, called The Gambler (that other biographical novel mentioned above) in time to meet the terms of his agreement with his publisher. He then went on to finish the longer, and more important novel. He also fell in love with and married his stenographer and she managed to help him turn his life around. He no longer gambled and he had fewer and fewer epileptic fits. He also wrote four of his five greatest novels after this marriage, including The Brothers Karamazov.

So, despite the fact that his novels are extraordinary, there are those who would argue that his life was even more fascinating than his novels. It is certainly the case that his remarkable life revealed to him the dark sides of the human psyche — his own and others — and deepened his interest in the New Testament, human suffering, redemption, the problem of evil, human freedom, and the close relationship between love and hate. He was a remarkable man who was also an extraordinary writer who saw more clearly than most what was true and what is false about human existence. If you haven’t read any of his novels, you owe it to yourself to do so. Once you plunge in you will get used to the Russian names, and  if you don’t read Russian (!) those who do so agree that the best translations are the ones by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.

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.

Can We Buy Happiness?

It appears you can buy happiness — especially if you are part of the 1%. A recent story in the Atlantic as summarized by Yahoo explains:

In the modern $1.4-trillion luxury economy, bling is out, and high-priced adventures are in. So says a new report from the consultants at BCG, which explores the lifestyle habits of the world’s wealthy based on interviews with roughly 1,000 affluent individuals. Cartier jewelry, Hermes handbags, and Tourneau watches are being eclipsed by exclusive getaways to the Maldives and helicopter skiing vacations in Alaska (which, in case you’re interested, you can book for about $5,750-a-person, all inclusive). Spending on those sorts of mind-bendingly expensive experiences now accounts for more than half of the luxury market and is growing more than 50 percent faster than sales of luxury goods.

The implications of this report are worth considering. For one thing, if true it gives the lie to ancient wisdom that insists that happiness cannot be bought at any price. Going back as far as the pre-Socratics in the West, the thought was that happiness was a function of inner-peace brought about by contemplation of eternal verities: possessions just divert attention away from what really matters. In the New Testament Christ tells his disciples to rid themselves of earthly possessions and follow him. Eastern wisdom also stresses inner peace as the means to true happiness.

In any event, since the sort of happiness discussed in the above-mentioned study is bought at a very high price, it is restricted to the very few. And it is based on simply asking a sample of the rich if they are happy having fun, which is suspect. The implication here is that the rest of us are doomed to be unhappy. I doubt that. I don’t trust what the rich tell us. I doubt their honesty and their perceptiveness. In fact, I side with the ancient wisdom that finds possessions a diversion from what really matters — such things as family and friends and the peace of mind that comes from a life well lived. I take it that was the point of the story, recounted by Herodotus, of Solon’s exchange with Croesus of Lydia. I cannot persuade myself that those who buy trinkets and take trips are doing anything but diverting their attention away from what really matters. Of course if you are rich enough you can keep doing that until the day you die and you will never know the sacrifice you have made — until on your death-bed you realize that you have been running away from yourself your whole life and worshipping a false god.

The study disagrees, as the article goes on to say that Psychology tells us that purchasing experiences can actually make us more content. In general, it’s better to buy up lots of little experiences — going to a series of concerts, or taking regular classes — than pouring our money into one gigantic splurge. But by shifting their spending away from watches and perfume, the rich may have finally figured out a way to turn their money into peace of mind.

While I suspect any claim that starts with words like “Psychology tells us that…” I dare say that buying “lots of little experiences” might indeed lead to contentment, if not happiness. But, as Aristotle reminds us, it’s a question of moderation. For those who can afford the little pleasures, no doubt contentment will follow. But I doubt that those who must go without even the small pleasures of concerts and classes cannot be happy. I have spoken with people who have visited the rag-tag poor in villages in remote parts of the world who insist that the people there are quite happy, indeed some of the happiest people they had ever met. I’ll never know for certain, but I also doubt that those with immense wealth who can afford to spend their lives taking trips and buying new homes and fast automobiles are truly happy. In the end, it is the kind of person we are that determines whether or not we are happy — regardless of how many “things” we own or concerts we are able to attend.