Archive for the ‘Education’ Category

Telling Alien Beings What Earth Was

December 29, 2010

The first week of my Freshman year at St. John’s Annapolis I was walking along the main street with Dennis Dort and we passed by a store window with some books in it. As a joke I pointed at the books and said “Dennis, what do it say in all them books.” He laughed himself silly. One could imagine an illiterate person assuming that all books say something similar just as someone unfamiliar with museums would see them as all the same; containing “interesting museum stuff.” Dennis was a charismatic personality many times brighter than I could ever be and soon he was the center of a clique which not only excluded me but somewhat despised me. One of Dennis’s best friends was Chris (whose last name escapes me.) One day Chris saw me pass by and said mockingly “Imagine if every human died on the planet except for Bill and aliens came and Bill had to try and explain to them what Earth and human culture was all about.” Aha, Chris LEE, I remembered! I was not terribly offended and did find the idea somewhat amusing. I knew they felt contempt for me and I just sort of accepted that as a fact of life. The odd thing is that as the years passed I came to see what Chris described as the one and only way for me to exercise my understanding; namely, UNLESS I can explain something extemporaneously and completely in my own words then I have not truly learned it. And it is not sufficient if I simply memorize a page and parrot it back. It is necessary that internalize my understanding so that it becomes my own second nature.

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Unrepeatable Insights

December 29, 2010

Kevin: A coworker of mine wrote some software that was subsequently classified. She was later asked some questions about how the software worked. When she asked for the source code to refresh her memory, she received a listing with the classified portions – which she had written – literally cut out of it.

William: Well, I suppose one moral to this story is always keep copies of everything one does that is of value. And yet I suppose to keep copies of such work without the express permission of the employer is unethical and perhaps illegal. A different moral is to heavily document all work so that even if it becomes classified, anyone with clearance to access it would be able to follow the documentation. On the other hand when writing very complex code it becomes cumbersome to maintain accurate documentation since the task of documenting impedes creativity and imagination. If one suddenly has some insight, it often takes a long time to put that insight into a narrative documentation which can be followed easily by others. I think we have all had the experience of writing something which seems rather inspired and unique and then losing track of the only copy and which point one realizes that it is impossible to recreate the exact same words. I sometimes feel that the mind’s creative imagination is like a kaleidoscope which is constantly refocusing and once a particular configuration passes out of focus one can never return to that exact same configuration.

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I worked for two years as a programmer in RPGII at Stone & Websters Engineering in Boston in what they called “The Treasury Department” which handled payroll and other accounting related tasks. Each programmer would be given an assignment which might take only a day or might take several months. After the programming was completed it would take a day or two to complete flowcharts and documentation. There was a full-time “librarian” who did nothing but file and monitor all documentation. I remember several times getting a program to do what was necessary and test out but losing sight of HOW the entire program actually worked. It was observed back in the 1980s that the IBM OS mainframe operating system was the most complex of all human creations. At any given time that operating system had a constant number of “bugs” that hovered around 1000. No matter how many bugs were “fixed” there were always new bugs. It was like trying to smooth out the wrinkles in an infinite carpet which of course was a never-ending task of Sisyphus. Perhaps if I possessed a higher caliber intellect I would not have produced working programs which escaped the full grasp of my understanding. Many old software programs and operating systems had layer upon layer of redundancy built into them to make them backwards compatible with older techniques. CICS on-line real time programming was said to be like that. Some huge programs had been maintained over the years by many programmers of varying skill levels. Sometimes a programmer was under pressure to implement a change or fix a “bug” in a hurry and so they would simply write something to BYPASS the old code and perform the task in a way that they could understand and control. I found it was ALWAYS easier to start a program from scratch and make it work rather than to take an old program, understand its design and modify it. Some programmers were more adept than others at demystifying old programs. I do wonder how open source programs like Linux deal with such issues. It took me years to realize that I did not really possess all the skills necessary to be a good programmer.

Jefferson on Religion in Public Education

December 25, 2010

by Robert M. Healy, Yale Press, 1963

I purchased this book sometime prior to 1965. Years ago I opened it and noticed a passage which always stayed with me. I thought I remembered it being in a FOOTNOTE. Finally today I took the book and looked through it for an hour. I discovered the passage and it is much as I remember it but it is not a footnote.

Page 96

The Source of the Variety of Opinion

The rationale behind Jefferson’s efforts to bring about freedom of opinion is not always clear; ultimately it seems to be based on two conflicting motives. The first goes back to the hypothesis, which Jefferson evidently accepted in common with members of the American Philosophical Society, that ideas are determined by the structure of the brain and that since each man’s brain is to some extent physically unique, his opinions must be expected to be so too. To Jefferson thinking, like gravity and magnetism, was a property or mode of action of matter. Thought was therefore determined by the structure of the thinking organ.

In line with this, Jefferson made remarks such as “Our opinions are not voluntary” ; “Differences of opinion … like differences of face, are a law of nature, and should be viewed with the same tolerance” ; and, “As the Creator made no two faces alike so no two minds and probably no two creeds.”

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Tolerance was not a means of promoting free discussion by which men could approach truth. It was merely an acceptance of the Creator’s intention that all men think differently.

Numerical Assessment of Educators

December 17, 2010

Our society has come to conflate “scientific” with digital in the sense of enumerable by means of statistics. This is not to say that the scientific revolution does not depend upon the valuable tool of mathematics as well as experimental verification of theory. But not all that is numeric or statistical is true. There is an old joke about a women’s college which had only two male professors and one of the professors married a student so the newspaper headlines read “50% of the professors marry students.” Of course we are shocked out of our mind to think that hundreds of professors are marrying students but we hardly think anything of one professor marrying one student. Also our society is into accountability and transparency and as funding becomes more scarce then the demand for justification becomes more severe. In the early 1980s I worked as a computer programmer for Stone & Websters Engineering in Boston. My supervisor gave me a form to grade myself from 1 to 10 (ten being highest) on various aspects of performance. I felt so much contempt for the concept that I put down 5 (average) for everything. Then we sat down and compared his copy with my copy. He was bright enough to realize immediately that I felt contempt for the method of evaluation because I had put down all 5’s. But then, at the end, he looked stunned when he saw that his average for me was 5 and exactly equaled my average. He was not bright enough to realize that he had started out with the goal that I was average and then gave me some very high grades for things like attendance and some very low grades on areas where he wanted to needle me. Stop and think of what we see on television all the time. The “Hit Parade” in the 1950s would tell us the top 100 songs. Various night time talk show hosts have a nightly routine of the “top 10” of something (I forget the hosts name) but they start with 10 which is the lowest and slowly work up to number one. I should really google and find some articles on that show… aha Letterman… I remembered without googling. In fact, over the years I wrote a lot about comparative world religions and I was slightly popular with some Hindus in India and Malaysia as a white American who had something good to say about Hindus, Buddhists, Jains and Sikhs and something negative to say about colonial efforts at occupation and religious conversion. Anyway, one person wrote me once to ask me what my NUMBER ONE Hindu Deity was and another person wrote me to ask what I consider the number one best culture/society of all times. I can dig out my replies but basically I explained that it is an error to assume that everything can be ranked on a scale of one to ten. Chomsky impressed me with his off-hand observation that the Neanderthal lived on Earth for 400,000 years while we Homo Sapiens have only been around for 200,000 and for those 400,000 years the polity of the Neanderthal was anarchy. My point is that there are many perfectly good ways for certain groups in certain circumstances at certain locations at certain points in history.

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A young person in India once asked me “Which culture do you think is the best?” Here is how I responded: That is a natural question, regarding many things, but it is not always a meaningful question.
I shall answer you in a sly fashion by saying “That culture is best which never has to ask which is the best culture.”

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The greatest wonder is that people live as if they will never die and then die never having lived.

The Cookie Cutter in Academia

December 17, 2010

These posts here on the subjective nature of grades make good points and remind me of something I read in my English translation of Sartre’s “On Being and Nothingness” which makes one realize that a great mind might be graded low in a typical academic setting. Hazel E. Barnes of the University of Colorado, is the translator. She writes in her introduction: “It has been interesting to run through what William James called ‘the classic stage of a theory’s career.’ Any new theory, said James, first ‘is attacked as absurd; then it is admitted to be true, but obvious and insignificant; finally it is seen to be so important that its adversaries claim that they themselves discovered it.” [Footnote: William James. Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking. New York: Longmans, Green, and Co. 1949. p. 198] … I imagine that many great minds would be outsiders in school. An instructor often has some paradigm in mind and those students with memorization skills can parrot back what is expected and earn high grades. But anyone who sees things through a different and novel paradigm may be seen as a failure or misfit and receive low or failing grades. I read with amusement that the Wright brothers approached the American government with the proposal that the newly invented airplane might serve as a tool for spying over enemy territory, and of course they were laughed to scorn. I think it was General MacArthur who began his military career with a few cavalry horses under his command and ended his career with fighter jets under his command. My own grandfather graduated from Yale Sheffield school of science in 1899 with a degree in chemistry. He had a choice of three jobs. One was with a new fangled company which was surely only a passing fad by the name of Polaroid so he rejected that immediately. The others were a railroad and Winchester firearms. Had he gone with Polaroid he would have become a very wealthy man. I guess what I am trying to say is that academic environments which force people to match up with cookie-cutter measurements of ability or intelligence may encourage conformity, emulation and obedience but do not encourage innovative diversity or imagination or creativity. By the way, I had to use my WordPress blog to dig out the quote from the Sartre translation so that I would not have to redo it from scratch. WordPress is handy because if you log into your account and go to your dashboard then in the upper right is a search field and if you key in a word (e.g. Sartre) you find all the posts. Also you can back up your blog as often as you like (same is true for blogspot.) There is no point in writing for years and then losing it and there is no point in reading and thinking and discussing for years but not write about it.

https://williambuell.wordpress.com/2010/11/21/do-not-silo-or-cloister/

I notice that my Facebook posts and notes go back several years but Facebook offers no easy way to search or reference something written a year or two ago other than to spend hours slowly paging back.

Vanishing Point

December 15, 2010

One of the most wonderful moments of many that I remember from SJC was on 4th floor East Pinkney one night, and Tom Rei came out of his room and ask us “When you see a ray of light coming out of the clouds, why does it start at a point and spread out” and for THIRTY MINUTES everyone was brainstorming and finally someone ran out of his room with the correct answer “VANISHING POINT” which is why railroad tracks seem to come to a point as we gaze in the distance yet we KNOW that they remain parallel. Even today the memory of that evening is exhilarating. And yet my step daughter was an award winning “Policy” debater (not Lincoln-Douglas) and she asked me about some issue one day, so I started to speculate what Truth, Justice, Beauty might mean and she screamed “I DON’T CARE WHAT IT MEANS… I just want to win” and well, the wind went right out of my sails. And now, she makes more money then I ever dreamed of in my life, but to this day, I can sense, that she really doesn’t care what certain issues mean, she just wants to win … and she certainly does win and I admire her accomplishments. (somewhere in all this is a lesson for someone, or perhaps several lessons for several people, depending on where your are and where you would like to be.)

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I used to look at various tutors like Jacob Kline, Eva Brann, Robert Bart and wonder what their minds must be like after SO MANY YEARS of such experiences (equal to going through SJC program say 10 times = 40 years) and I wondered whether they had some much deeper insight that they could not possibly share with us because they are on the peak of Mt. Everest and we haven’t even made it to the top of Rushmore…. OR…. was it the case that they reached some kind of saturation point and the thing to marvel at was NOT some inner vision but rather their remarkable ability to go through the books each time AS IF it were the first time and maintain a level of interest and attention and concern.. also, as a student I desperately wanted ANSWERS and I felt they knew something that they weren’t telling me and when I reached mid-life it dawned upon me that they HAD to act that way to keep us searching and motivating and they could NEVER really let us win an argument with them just like a Zen master can NEVER let you solve the Koan (or if you do, there is always another Koan right behind it.)

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My comment was in response to Mr. F posting this: http://spectator.org/archives/2010/12/07/multiculturalism-rip . The article refers to specific criminal acts. It IS a tenet of the American criminal justice system that we punish individuals for what they have done. Not only is there no blood guilt in our system, but we treat intentional crimes as much more severe than when someone does not act with full intent such as insanity, diminished capacity, etc.

The problem I see with elevating culture over volition is that it can give rise to (1) defenses to crimes by individuals — I didn’t have full volition because of my ethnic subculture, and (2) attacks on minority groups by the majority.

Don’t think that there’s an ethnic cleansing anywhere in the world that hasn’t been preceded by propaganda/brainwashing about the terrible things the to-be-cleansed-culture does that must be eliminated by exterminating the group. It’s a slope unacceptably slippery for this assimilated American.

On Mortimer Adler HOW TO READ A BOOK

December 2, 2010

Marie: It never made sense to me. Of course I had Leo Radista and Stephenson for junior seminar. Radista told nearly all the students in our seminar that they didn’t know how to read, especially some of our more “maverick” students. Perhaps Radista was working on commission for Adler’s book.

William: Last year I had a long talk with an SJC grad who became a professor at a college patterned after “The Program.” I explained to him how as a student I felt so frustrated in my efforts to get tutors to AGREE with me but now in old age I realize that they were perhaps TRAINED NOT to offer agreement but to always offer resistance in order to sharpen our endeavors and keep us far from complacency. This professor grad even said “They must drum it into their heads to be contentious.” For us to be life-long students and good readers I feel we must maintain a certain state of being as follows: 1.) be humble and assume “I only know that I do not know” because if we assume that we know it all and all is obvious then we shall not question with an open mind and “far more dangerous than the unanswered question is the unquestioned answer” 2.) Hold one’s judgment in abeyance as long as possible 3.) FORCE yourself to study things that do not appeal to you whether it is chemistry or math or even transcendental meditation because if you pursue only the path of least resistance then you shall never encounter new ways of thinking 4.) make an earnest effort to BE A DEVILS ADVOCATE and think in the way that your opponent or adversary or ideology is thinking because the only way you can refute is from WITHIN the axiomatic system finding its inherent weakness and turning that against it ; hence with regard to Mr. Raditsa’s rebuke it probably was true that the maverick students should have slowed down a bit and tried to approach things more slowly. As a teenager I fell in love with the poetry of Wallace Stevens. I quickly read his poem Emperor of Ice Cream and for years I would say “let be be FINAL of seem” … only recently did I look at it and realize that the line reads “let be be FINALE of seem” ; BIG difference and hence 5.) always doubt ourselves and challenge ourselves and be our own worst adversary.; the 33 verse of the Tao says “he who knows others has wisdom but he who knows the self has enlightenment” ; it is easy to conquer others but it is difficult to conquer the self.

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Mortimer Adler wrote a book on “HOW TO READ A BOOK”

During our discussion what came to my mind is a little poem by Wallace Stevens, the very first poem I ever read from a Time Magazine review in the mid 1960s

The Emperor of Ice-Cream

Call the roller of big cigars,
The muscular one, and bid him whip
In kitchen cups concupiscent curds.
Let the wenches dawdle in such dress
As they are used to wear, and let the boys
Bring flowers in last month’s newspapers.
Let be be finale of seem.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

Take from the dresser of deal,
Lacking the three glass knobs, that sheet
On which she embroidered fantails once
And spread it so as to cover her face.
If her horny feet protrude, they come
To show how cold she is, and dumb.
Let the lamp affix its beam.
The only emperor is the emperor of ice-cream.

As a teenager I read in haste and thought it said “Let be be FINAL of seem” and so for years I misquoted that line. I should have read more carefully.

Now in these days of the Internet we have the luxury to READ and see how MANY PEOPLE read.

http://wonderingminstrels.blogspot.com/1999/08/emperor-of-ice-cream-wallace-stevens.html

http://www.soundsandfury.com/soundsandfury/2004/12/the_emperor_of_.html

http://www.cummingsstudyguides.net/Guides4/emperor.html

http://plagiarist.com/poetry/1023/comments/

All I can really do (all that any of us can do) is to offer my personal view on these matters as I passed through life. I summed things up for myself several years ago with a parable or allegory if you will about “The Limb Crawler and the Limb Sawyer.” The next two links give you the long and the short of it, first the SHORT and sweet followed by the LONG and not so sweet: https://williambuell.wordpress.com/2010/06/27/limb-crawlers-and-limb-sawyers/ ; that was the short and sweet and now for the longer and not so sweet ; https://williambuell.wordpress.com/2009/12/23/is-abortion-taking-life/ ; You see, one of the biggest mistakes people make in life is to conflate agreement with truth ; A sophist or a demagogue has the charisma to attract thousands to their school of thought. I did not have such charisma and yet I had need throughout my life to engage in inquiry and dialogue and so THROUGH NECESSITY I had to do it alone in a monologue or soliloquy. I had to be my own preacher, choir and congregation. I would have liked to become an Ayn Rand or a Jacob Kline or an Eva Brann or a Christopher Hitchens or a William F. Buckley, Jr. (and mind you I am not branding them as demagogues, but they did have the charisma to gain a following.) I did not have my own magazine like “The National Review” or my own television show like “Firing Line” so I had to stoke the coals of my own fire like a Thoreau in his cabin or an Emily Dickinson in her parlor or a Fernando Pessoa in his garret and fill an old wooden chest with my scribblings only in this case the wooden trunk was on the Internet. But whenever someone asks me what I really REALLY think then I simply give them a link to all my scribblings and I say to them: “The proof of the pudding is simply this – IF you had something of your own to say then you must have had the foresight to SAY it and write it and put it someplace as a link so that others might see. NOW it may be the case that you were mistaken or even deluded BUT you did the daily exercise of putting it down in words. BUT, if your little box, your little trunk or suitcase of life is EMPTY, then, go away, you fool, because you have nothing to say, you said nothing, you did nothing, you were only a limb sawyer who wrinkled their nose at everything and whined and said “I dont get it” ; there is an old joke which was employed in the TV movie production of Ursula LeGuinn’s The Lathe of Heaven – “Neurotics build castles in the sky; psychotics LIVE in them; and psychiatrists collect the rent.” Well, in a sad and happy way, everyone’s OPUS, EVERYONE, is in a certain sense a castle in the sky, whether it is Kants opus or Plato or Hegel or Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead’s Principia Mathematica. It was their sand box for 20 or 30 years and it became their sand castle in the sky. They all strive for some kind of closure of “Absolute Knowledge” or some “Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics” and they are grand and noble lifeworks like Gibbon’s 20 years on “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” or Einstein’s effort at a G.U.T Grand Unified Theory.

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Actually there are as many different ways to read a book as there are people who read books. Harold Bloom wrote his book about how to read which is possibly more engaging than Mortimer Adler’s book. I will say that anyone who writes anything that gets other people to read books, no matter how foolish or deranged that writing might be, has done a good work.

I will be the first to admit that in the late 1960s I listened to Adler and Strauss and I was not converted or overly impressed. And I saw people who were in the thrall of such founders of schools of thoughts and I saw such thralls as more to be pitied than their leaders because although we are all fools and knaves, at least Adler and Strauss and Leo Buscaglia were able to get it together enough to publish something and gain some sort of following.

As much as we might personally loath someone like Sarah Palin or Tiny Tim (the falsetto singer of the early 1960s) we must on some level give them credit for the fact that they did something that most of us can never do, namely, they got themselves noticed and they achieved Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame that all of us are supposed to get and perhaps all of us do now with Internet and Facebook and WordPress and Myspace, etc.

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Aaron: Sometimes what it takes to succeed at something is wholehearted devotion to it. That includes acquiring a following. But to adapt one of Adler’s arbitrary tests of “greatness”, how many images of him and his books would you suppose will come up on the analogue of google hundreds of years hence?

William: Aaron, excellent question. Ask me in a hundred years (just kidding). Ibn Khaldūn of the 12 century in what is now Tunisia was the father of social sciences http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ibn_Khaldun observing that cultures go through vast cycles of rise and decline. None of his students took up his ideas. His ideas were only rediscovered centuries later. F. Scott Fitzgerald died believing that he was a failure as a novelist and “The Great Gatsby” was only recognized 20 years later. Rosa Parks some 40 years ago (her anniversary just came up) was a trouble-maker of a colored woman on a bus. Had you been on that bus you would have shaken your head. You would never imagine that she would one day receive the highest civilian award for her troublesomeness. The two doctors who pioneered lobotomy and turned the Kennedy girl into a vegetable received a Nobel prize. And yet Joyce, Proust and Nabokov never won Nobel prizes. Life is full of surprises and history is full of even more surprises.

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We can see there are people who admire Adler and there are people who do not. We must acknowledge that the efforts and beliefs of many people at the University of Chicago and elsewhere went into founding what is now the Great Books Program at SJC. We see from Kyle’s post this morning that there are people who are less than happy with the SJC experience. And we can find people such as myself who have derived satisfaction every day of our lives from the experience although in the eyes of the world we are academic and economic failures. By the way, shortly after Kyle posted he had a long talk with me about the past and the future. I told him that what he wrote was O.K. with me in the sense that there is no ad hominem or profanity. We all need some place to vent at times and express our dissatisfactions in a civil fashion. I have a youtube link to that SJC film from years ago where a young cigarette smoking Jacob Kline talks with a student who is frustrated and on the verge of dropping out. I will find that and post it here.

http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/fredrogerssenatetestimonypbs.htm

If Fred Rogers were an SJC graduate then this speech would be a strong argument for the practical value of such an education. Fred Rogers did not go through “The Program.” But SJC has not cornered the market on the power of discourse or persuasion or informed consent. I find this speech moving.

I searched in haste for this clip and only just now realized that it is part of a site entitled “American Rhetoric Bank” http://www.americanrhetoric.com/ Sometimes “rhetoric” is a dirty word but it does not have to be a dirty word. Sex can be a dirty word but it can also be a beautiful word. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and a knife is merely a tool in the hand of a surgeon or a weapon in the hands of a criminal. What we see of the world depends on how we look at it; through a microscope, a telescope or rose-colored glasses. We need some way to interpret what we see, but even “seeing through a glass darkly” is better than closing our eyes and refusing to look.

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I totally agree with you that SJC is not “a scam.” I want to give K. a chance to vent his frustrations. He has received some excellent advice from various people in this thread. I have a different alumnus (my age bracket) in a different group who is trying to convince me that I should be unhappy about my SJC education of 40 years ago and that I should try to audit some free CUNY classes so that I can see how much better a college experience can me. Some of what I said to him I reposted here because it is pertinent to this thread. I helped my first wife get through Harvard night school by attending some classes while she was ill and taking some notes and those classes were taught by the same professors/instructors who taught the regular Harvard undergrads. I grew up near New Haven and had a lot of exposure over the years to Yale students and teachers and graduates. After 40 years has gone by, what is the point of casting blame on one’s undergraduate experience. My total 4 years ’69 – 71 cost $16000 including pocket money, train fares to New Haven. My father told me that he had invested $500 in something which grew to $16000 so he used that to pay for school. My education was part of a divorce settlement. I can honestly say that during the past 40 years I have had a number of pleasant dreams (when I am asleep, actual dreams) in which I get to go BACK to SJC and re-do one year, and in the dream I try to decide which year I would like to redo. By the way, the man who thinks I should audit CUNY… I told him I am content with what Google and Facebook and WordPress provide (and PBS educational TV) as far as continued intellectual stimulation.

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Obviously the Homeric poems were some kind of oral tradition which finally was written down and redacted (and the same might be said for the Vedas.) Socrates possibly represented some kind of oral tradition which traces back to the pre-Socratics and Plato was for the first time trying to CAPTURE IN WRITING some of what took place as an oral tradition. There was a certain notion that one could not trust the written word once separated from the author and that you needed the living author with you to explain the intention whereas the written word divorced from the author might be distorted in some way. One sees that same mistrust of the written word in the 2nd century bishop Irenaeus who was right at the time when the Gospels were being written and redacted and leaving the oral tradition. In face it was Irenaeus who argued that there should only be 4 Gospels because of that 4 faced vision of Ezekiel which corresponds to something in the Book of Revelation. I guess the point I am trying to make is that SOMETHING takes place in a seminar dialogue with 30 people that cannot take place elsewhere and it is something electric, something living a life of its own and one can try to approximate what happens by writing down the dialogue but the written word is a shadow of the living discussion. It is that living experience of the seminar which I miss the most and which I try to recreate for myself on-line in chat rooms like Yahoo and IRC and in message boards.

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*In face* should read *In FACT it was Irenaeus who argued” … I vividly remember Jaroslav Pelikan pointing out Irenaeus mistrust of the written word in his 5 volume masterpiece, “The Christian Tradition – A History of the Development of Doctrine.” What I am about to say will only have real meaning to people from India who are familiar with Tusidas’ Ramayan (Ramacharitamanasa – The Holy Lake of the Acts of Ram) and the TV version of the Ramayan made in the 1980s by Ramanand Sagar. The two key scenes from the book (and movie) are 1.) The great Garuda who is the eagle “vehicle” of Vishnu himself, upon seeing Ram stricken with certain weapons actually LOSES FAITH, and so he comes to the humble Crow (Kag Bushundi) who is a singer of the Ramayan and the Crow restores the Eagles faith through the singing of the Lila (pastimes of Ram who is the earthly avataric incarnation of Vishnu.) Now the SECOND important scene is where the woman devotee of Ram, whose name is Shabari, spends all of her life in bhakti devotion, reliving the pastimes and finally Ram himself comes to see her (imagine Jesus appearing to a monk or nun.) Shabari has only one request, one question for Ram. Shabari asks Ram to teach her the nine devotional excellences which can bring the devotee to a personal vision of the Lord… well in the movie Ram LAUGHS because she is asking for lessons in what she has ALREADY ACHIEVED since Ram is right there, but he grant her request and explains the nine excellences which are Sravana, Kirtana, Smarana, Padasevana, Archana, Vandana, Sakhya, Dasya, Atmanivedana BUT WHAT IS SIGNIFICANT IS THE VERY FIRST and foremost which is SIMILAR to a seminar experience, namely Sravana which is ASSOCIATION or FELLOWHIP discourse with those who share your interest, and it is a kind of bootstrap experience – sravana means hearing, so it is kind of like LOGOS or discourse and it is also remotely like the word become flesh.

Virtual On-Line Universities

November 26, 2010

After SJC I spent a year taking math courses at the University of New Haven. Once I made a point in a math class and went up to the blackboard. I guess the class was in shock. The professor was not angry but she explained that such a thing is simply not done. I during that year I realized that no one was forced to exercise skill in speaking, explaining, demonstrating, arguing, questioning or leading. I suppose the only way a few students might get such experience is in a debate society or some other kind of extra curricular activity. Memorizing constantly and regurgitating back during exam time is deadening. In fact, I honestly believe that the same quality education could be had by an on-line college. After all, one may read lectures in pdf or listen to lectures in MP3. Computer programs could exercise students and provide correction and reinforcement. Applications like Skype allow one-on-one counseling. Faculty and students could all work from home. Paltalk provides the ability for voice chat plus chat room typing and also allows participants to raise their hand for a turn at the mic while admins can silence someone so that they may only audit but not participate. Students and faculty can work from home. No physical campus is necessary, no maintenance or security staff. An on-line university could even in theory monitor and log all keystrokes and literally measure each persons time studying and testing. The more gifted students could move through courses quickly while the less gifted could go at a slower pace and request remedial courses. AND, if there were some kind of Paltalk or IRC program for disciplined discussions or preceptorials then on-line students would actually get the practice in reasoning, arguing and expressing themselves which students in traditional colleges do not presently receive. Students in dorms probably spend a tremendous amount of time on-line anyway. And with features like librivox.org , gutenburg.org and Google books physical libraries would be unnecessary. The student body could be scattered around the globe. The size of the student body could be more flexible since it could be small at times and vast at other times without the limitations that traditional infrastructure impose. Perhaps boundaries between different “virtual colleges” would be more fluid. We now have paralegals and paramedics so perhaps the more gifted and industrious students would become paraprofessors absorbing many of the more repetitive and time consuming tasks. Foreign language could easily be handled using native speakers in their native lands for instruction. Students could commence with study even while they are junior or senior high school age. Each student could have a WordPress style blog which would provide a permanent documented footprint of all there courses, essays, grades, questions, advice.

I just now remembered that Abraham Lincoln had about one year of formal schooling. Lincoln’s formal education consisted of approximately 18 months of classes from several itinerant teachers; he was mostly self-educated and was an avid reader. He educated himself each evening after a long day of physical labor. The point I am making is that people can become educated by what little means are available to them. Should it happen that economic problems make traditional colleges and schools no longer feasible then people will still continue to educate themselves by whatever means are available and new paradigms of education will probably involve the Internet and a lot more of students working on their own rather than in a formal classroom or lecture hall setting. The master-apprentice paradigm was popular for centuries prior to the Industrial Revolution. Another paradigm was that of the wealthy patron sponsoring an artist or writer. James Joyce may have been one of the last writers to be sponsored by his patroness Harriet Shaw Weaver. Paradigms change. With regard to a program like SJC Great Books the question becomes “How many people who settle in factory or office jobs will chose to continue their liberal arts pursuits privately?” I once met a cross country truck driver from a rural area in the Bible belt. We talked literally all night because he was deeply troubled about certain religious questions. I marveled that whatever obscure passage of the Old Testament I mentioned to him he could complete the verse for he had learned it by heart yet he had only a high school education. The private pursuit of liberal arts studies for personal enrichment as opposed to earning some academic credential is analogous to those who pursue religion privately. How many people chose such pursuits may depend upon advertising and marketing (see the Cigar DOC).

Cult-Studs: Good, Bad, Indifferent

November 25, 2010

SORRY for my major confusion: I was confused about “stud” thinking that it simply might mean intellectual hegemony. In my mind, Jacob Kline and Mortimer Adler and Leo Strauss were “studs” not in the mountain climbing sense but in the sense that they lead a group of followers (same thing with Ayn Rand or Marshall McLuhan or any number of other people) and those followers become obsessed and close-minded (even if the leader is someone who is open-minded) and they grasp hold of one paradigm of understanding and apply it to everything. Now I know that a stud is someone with physical prowess and cult-stud means cultural studies and not the leader of a cult.
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Cult Stud thread: I am getting a lot out of Zizek thread which has a sub theme of “cult stud” (a new term to me but, I feel, a valid useful term.) I got curious today to seach and see how the term is used. I was surprised to find a site which speaks of Wikipedia as a cult with studs. I happen to value Wikipedia myself but I know there are people who hate it. Anyway, I am learning something new each day here and see valuable people with valuable views so I thought I would start a thread just for my own benefit on “cult stud” and tack on some links. I think cultism is a genuine phenomenon worth exploration.

I started this a a new thread but decided that DOC might be a better approach since it is editable. I am even wondering if ther is a “Cult-Stud for dummies site which would give some useful exploration.

Subtheme:
When does a cult-stud group become a hate group because obviously they do, and there is a down side to that I mean it is good to critique Plato, Aristotle, Rand, Marshall McLuen, Derrida, but when does one cross the line, and what is bad about crossing the line?

On the other side of the fence, there is the issue of free speech and minority rights… and even someone like Rand MUST have had something going for her since there are admiring people, ESPECIALLY in developing places(e.g. India) where they see Rand philosophy as a tool for development. Did you know there is an organization in India who offers an annual prize for the best Ayn Rand essay? India is in a different predicament than America. There are shining modern metropolis urban centers like Mumbai and then a few hundred miles away there are villages living almost in the Stone Age (and I am not knocking the Stone Age or tribal and aboriginal life since it has its good points.)

I know what I am about to say is heresy at SJC, but I watched Leo Strauss and Mortimer Adler and Eva Brann lectures. I admired what they had to offer, but on some level they had their own cults arise and perhaps they were not pleased about that phenomenon. IS there a down side to that and it the phenomenon is worthy note or exploration?

Perhaps it may be said that when groups of people SURRENDER their minds and hearts to a cult phenomenon then it may be said that they do so out of weakness because the FORMULA of the cult doctrine seems to them to solve a lot of problems and FREES them from the personal responsibility of wrestling with such problems. I think the Tea-Party folks have legitimate complaints and challenges in the face of real problems in the world, but they also face the temptation to surrender to their own arising cults and stud leaders.

I am involved in an Ayn Rand discussion group formation right now NOT because I know very much about Ayn Rand but because one of my best friends from SJC has made Rand’s work the focus of his life. I created group for him and one other Rand fan from India who is not SJC but is important to my life.

People like Rand and Derrida and Marshall McLuen and Zizek arise and gain followings. I think the best think to come out of the valuable Zizek thread is that when someone like Socrates comes on the scene it is in part because there is some void or weakness in the society at the time and the rise of a Socrates or a Marx or a Hitler or a Stalin or a Jesus or a Buddha or even a Mohammed is a symptom of that void or need.

Now I know some people are going to scream and say HEY WAIT HERESY. You are mentioning the sacred with the profane. Socrates and Jesus and Buddha are obviously good guys for many and beyond reproach, while Hitler and Stalin and Derrida (the POMOS – Postmodernists – rhyming with Homo) are the bad guys in the eyes of many. There is the good, the bad, the indifferent. There is wheat, and chaff, and a winnowing fan if you will (or Plato-Klein warp and woof).

In Moses day, things (laws, tablets) were written in STONE. He got made over the golden calf, smashed the stone, and went back to get a re-write. We assume the second revision was an exact copy of the first. Point is, nowadays, nothing is written in stone. Even a constitution has amendments which are subject to repeal (Prohibition.) We learn from our mistakes and sometimes we forget some history and are doomed to repeat it as kind of a karmic punishment (e.g. derivatives: we learned some lessons from the Great Depression, put some checks and balances in place, and then apparently forgot something along the way are opened pandoras box to financial irresponsibility.) So the world of finance and politics and the world of ideas is a pendulum which swings. Sometimes swinging is good. The old song “Engaland (sic) swings like a pendulum do; bobbies on bicycles two by two.” Sometimes the pendulum means freedom and pursuit of happiness. Sometimes the freedom of the swinging pendulum spells trouble in the sense of instability, revolution, wars, rumors of war.

The ideals of the St. John’s College Great Books Program have more to do with the idea that self-governance, thinking for oneself, truly knowing oneself, and so on are the practices that grant us a sense of balance and freedom from slavishness (and note that cultism with its stud leader CAN be a form of slavishness). There are developments in philosophy that tend to fixate on the self as a kind of prisoner or an entity in natural opposition to the rest of the universe.

We humans, as a species, ALWAYS hover on the brink of conflict chaos and war… here and in the world. Look at all our experience on the Internet. We are ALWAYS one harsh word away from violence, ad hominem, hatred, insult, and I know that I am just as liable to this weakness as anyone else. But we all share in this frailty because it is a part of our humanity.

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To Ayn Rand Group –
Welcome, Paul and Brian (if I may be so familiar.) Thanks Dhanlakshmi for the adds. As you can see from todays blog, I have been busy integrating my thoughts on Ayn Rand (which is a new experience for me) with discussions about Zizek in my closed St. Johns College Alumni group. The Internet frowns upon what they call cross-posting, so a WordPress blog with a link (or tinyurl) is a way to share ideas in different places or different groups. I just vowed the other day to use Twitter more (I have it on my Blackberry.) On Twitter I am readgreatbooks (not to be pretentious) but I am a product of St. John’s College Great Books Program and most of my life the things I blog about are partially from such a perspective. So, for example, here is the short link which WordPress provides for my blot so I shall TWEET that shortly http://wp.me/pBlI9-Xz . IF any of you like you may start an AnyRand Twitter and feed short links into it. We could have a contest on the best Twitter name like GrandAynRandFellowship something catchy which stresses that we prefer FANS, invite civil sincere discussion which questions, but we discourage hatred and ad hominem because life is short and so why hate. Better to ignore what you hate and concentrate upon what you admire.

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I am amused with the thought that none of US could be cult-studs because all of us are always so open to considering opinions which differ from our own. I will watch the youtube link. I appreciate your help because I am clueless. Hmmm…. I am wondering how one might see Jesus as open to suggestions (You generation of vipers… I am the truth, the way…. light has no part with darkness… those who are not with us are against us) but that is an explosive topic that would not be suitable here. I think it is good for us to expose ourselves to new ideas in social networking… Cult Studs is my new word for the semester.

http://www.physics.nyu.edu/faculty/sokal/transgress_v2/transgress_v2_singlefile.html

Source of my confusion: Is “cult-stud” an abbreviation for “cultural studies” or is the “stud” a macho leader founder of a “cult?”

Answer: ‎’Cult Stud’ is an abbreviation for ‘a person of a cultural studies persuasion’

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cultural_studies

2 Corinthians 6:14 – Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness?

Start with Bakhtin, and forget the rest.

http://www.shef.ac.uk/bakhtin/overview

Cigars and the Humanities

November 24, 2010

We have all heard the famous quote “What this country needs is a good 10 cent cigar,” said by Thomas Riley Marshall, Vice President under Woodrow Wilson. Now I know that because I just googled it and not because every day of my life I remember that Thomas Riley Marshall was V.P.

I want to post some of these pedestrian thoughts because it may have some bearing upon the issue of the place of Humanities in Colleges and Universities today, and the place of higher education in the minds of the public consumer.

By the way, I gave up all tobacco and alcohol 2 years ago. But in the 1980s I liked to smoke cigars, expensive cigars. Now it is a smelly, expensive, filthy habit. I went into New Haven’s main tobacco shop one day, around 1985, and one old man, a customer, said to me that cigar consumption was at an all time low. It was unpopular. Apparently during the late 1980s certain advertising and marketing firms began to promote cigar smoking as a cool thing that cool, successful people do. I started working in NYC in the early 90s. I worked right next to a law school on 5th avenue. One day I saw all the young men, law students, out on the sidewalk smoking very expensive cigars. I remembered what the old man said around 1985 and I marveled at the fact that marketing and advertising promotion can re-invent and revitalize and make fashionable something that is basically a very bad idea (smelly, unhealthy, inconvenient, expensive, unproductive.)

[I had to google just now to remind myself the name of that law school:
http://www.cardozo.yu.edu ]

So lately I think to myself “Self, how are the Humanities or Liberal Arts like cigars.” Obviously the average “man in the street” is practical and wants to get value for his money especially when money is tight and one must make sacrifices. At this point I could suggest that some advertising agency should try to do for the Humanities what they did for cigars. I am reminded of one of the charges against Socrates, that he taught people how to “make the weaker argument defeat the stronger.” Now if you look at politics and media and advertising and our judicial system we are all engaged in one way or another in trying to promote some idea or practice in the minds of the public and demote some other idea or practice.

I realize now at age 62 that had I wanted to be wealthy and successful and secure I should have stayed a million miles away from philosophy and poetry and SJC. I should have taken all business courses in high school, gone to New Haven College (now University of New Haven) and majored in accounting. I might have gone into a company like Armstrong who FOR YEARS had a billboard right next to New Haven college advertising how many graduates had been hired over the years. In essence, for me to be successful in a material sense in the eyes of the world I should have had the foresight NOT TO BE ME. I should have become someone entirely different. Now perhaps I would have taken 8 years of business between high school and college and still failed to prosper for one reason or another. Perhaps I would have put all my eggs into the Armstrong basket only to suffer years later from marketplace reversals and recession and outsourcing or EPA, or Lord knows what (since nothing in life is guaranteed.)

I guess the point I am trying to make is that the consumer public is swayed by many things. They can decide that smoking cigars is a great idea. They can decide that Sarah Palin will be the best person to lead the nation.

Whether we like it or not, higher education is viewed as a commodity in the market place, an investment. We could try to sell the world on Plato and Shakespeare and Mozart and Italian courses through advertising. One bottom line reality is that when disposable income disappears then people stop smoking cigars. They stop buying second homes and second cars. And perhaps they stop sending their children to a traditional college education. Some articles suggest that the money be invested in some small business or store. I remember how years before my birth in 1949 someone called England a “nation of shopkeepers.” One fellow in London walked for blocks looking for a tobacco store and could not find one so he OPENED HIS OWN tobacco store and it was very successful. In the 1950s most of the drugstores were family owned and run. A son would become a registered pharmacist and take over the business. And many drugstores had soda fountains with counters where one could sit and drink milkshakes. With the advent of huge pharmacy chain stores the small family pharmacies disappeared. I taught English to many Greeks in New Haven in the 1970s. A majority of them opened pizza shops and diners and delis. The Koreans open convenience stores. In the Diamond District of NYC all the Israelis own the companies, the South Americans are the craftspeople and the Indians and Sri Lankans sell the raw stones. I know because I worked there for a year.

So to summarize:

1.) Cigar smoking is bad and expensive
2.) Advertising and peer pressure can induce many people to spend time and money on a bad idea
3.) The Humanities could be promoted more in the media
4.) Obviously most of us think that our Liberal Arts studies enriched our lives even if we spend our lives as cab drivers or plumbers (and one of my classmates is a cab driver in Maine and another has “The Lusty Wrench” which is presumably a plumbing service.) http://www.lustywrench.com/who.htm
5.) We live in a society which looks at short term benefits and positions itself for the next quarterly report rather than position themselves for something 30 years down the road.

I am not sorry that I lived my life pursuing what interested me at the expense of material success. I have seen people who slaved a lifetime to acquire wealth and then lost it.
I did not slave to earn a PhD in something where I shall never gain a teaching possession. I did not acquire any fortune so I have no investments or funds at risk. I am 62 so if the doctor tells me that I have 6 months to live I am not going to feel so badly because I did with my life what I wanted to.

I sincerely believe that IF young people have a hunger for learning then they have the perfect tool in the form of their computer and the Internet. Traditional campuses are obsolete. I can sit in my living room and publish or converse with people around the world. There is no reason why people cannot pursue the humanities on line. All that is necessary is the desire and the time. If the economy gets so bad that people have to work 80 hours a week just to get a meal a day and pay their rent or mortgage well then they are not going to be worried about a “life of the mind.”

I am the voice of a Johnnie who had no other desire but to finish the program and who never became a success in business or academia but I got what I wanted out of life.

My 6th grade teacher, Carlyle Percival Aveni, used to write a proverb on the blackboard EVERY day. Each of us had a notebook and we had to COPY those proverbs and he would check the notebooks every day. I actually wrote two proverbs and he posted them on the board. I think some classmates were irritated because they had to copy down one of my proverbs and who the hell am I? Anyway, that stuff got into my blood and became part of my life. One of the proverbs that stays with me: “Two men look out through the same bars. One sees mud and the other sees stars.” I look at the world and my life through the lens of SJC. Perhaps they are rose-colored glasses and I am a fool. But I have enjoyed the view. By the way, Mr. Aveni spent his life becoming a grade school teacher and one of the best. Teaching became a crummy way to make a living. Some of his wealthy friends encouraged him to leave teaching and run a nursing home and make a lot more money. It was a hard decision for him to make to leave teaching in order to make a lot more money but he made the change.

The years I lived in Boston there was one CHESS center where all the Chess addicts would gather. I was there the week it closed and was talking to the owner. Economic times had changed and they could no longer remain open. He told me that there are people who get so into chess that they travel around the world to tournaments and subordinate their lives to it and do without. We know that there have been artists and authors who have done the same. Some of them become recognized and wealthy and others die in obscurity and only decades later is a chest full of writings discovered in some attic and celebrated.

Viktor Frankl talks about “saving things to the past” meaning that no one and nothing can rob me of my 4 years at SJC in the late 1960s (except perhaps Alzheimer’s.)

Jallaludin Rumi said “Do not seek water. Seek THIRST! For without thirst the water has no value.” A liberal/arts/humanities curriculum is no more than water or cigars. It is a question of THIRST. There will always be a few each century who are BORN with a thirst, a compulsion like Ramanujan or Euler or Thoreau or any number of others. Anyway, these are some of my thoughts.

P.S. I saved the DOC and forgot to ask “What happens should people in general lose their thirst for art or their taste for cigars.”

I have blogged a lot over the years about my SJC experience. Here is an actual conversation that took place with my step-son when he was in 8th grade. And the end is a poem I wrote based on an conversation I had with him after he watched a television news item –
The blog date is the date I reposted in WordPress and not the date when all this happened.

https://williambuell.wordpress.com/2009/08/25/8th-grade-existentialism/