Sunday, October 09, 2016

Sounds, Words, Meaning, Poetry

How many positive words can you make that begin with the letter N?


How many negative words can you make that begin with the letter N?


It seems there are many more negative words beginning with the word N than positive ones. More, notice how your mouth and nose move to shape the words.

"Neighbor" makes your mouth spread out into a smile.

"Nice" opens your mouth.

"No" first opens, then closes your mouth.

Never, negative, nought, ne'er-do-well, nihilism -- all cause you to crinkle your nose in the same way you would crinkle your nose in disgust.

It's been fashionable for over 100 years to say with Saussure that language is arbitrary. However, linguists are discovering that our words are less arbitrary than they seem.

Great poets build poems from sounds, and from the sounds build ever-increasing complexity of meaning. Those who fail to do this have never been, cannot be, and never will be the great poets. The sounds are meaningful in a pre-linguistic way on which our language was built. 

Cronyism Creates Illiteracy in Our Schools

My wife just started reading Donalyn Miller's The Book Whisperer, a book which I was already interested in reading, but am even more so after my wife read some of the introduction to me.

For example, Miller points out that, "The only groups served by current trends to produce endless programs for teaching reading are the publishing and testing companies who make billions of dollars from their programs and tests." She further says she she believes
this corporate machinery of scripted programs, comprehension worksheets (reproducibles, handouts, printables, whatever you want to call them), computer-based incentive packages, and test-practice curricula facilitate a solid bottom line for the companies that sell them. these programs may deceive schools into believing that they are using every available resource to teach reading, but ultimately, they are doomed to fail because they overlook what is most important. (3)
Here she is, without doubt, completely correct. Except for one thing. The programs aren't deceiving anybody. The schools benefit from perpetuating student illiteracy every bit as much as do the corporations selling these useless products. Indeed, only if student illiteracy is perpetuated can these corporations sell more of their products. So their products prevent students from learning how to read so they can sell more of their products. The politicians who pass education legislation and administrators in the school districts who adopt these programs benefit from the cronyist relationship with the companies. Everyone is benefiting except the students.

And I see the results. I am teaching 4th and 5th grade social studies, and I have been told that many of my students cannot read. Most of the rest are nowhere near grade level. This past summer, when I handed out books for my students to read, I was told by my mentor to take them back up because if the students were engaged in independent reading, they weren't "engaged." The cult of "engagement," a weasel-word if I ever heard one, is perhaps the single main reason students don't learn anything at all. Student engagement means the students are doing busy work, but not really learning how to do much of anything, like read.

We should be appalled that there is a government-corporate cronyist relationship built on and feeding off of keeping students below reading level if not outright illiterate just so politicians, administrators, and corporations can make millions if not billions of dollars. We do not need anything the "education" businesses are selling. We just need books.

Thursday, October 06, 2016

Ancient Natural Classicism in Theatre

If you are a playwright or in theater in any capacity at all, you really need to know your theatre history. This short history of ancient theatre is a great little start.

One of the main aspects of theatre we forget but which is still in some real sense a fundamental aspect of theatre is its origins in shamanism. Theatre is about appeasing the spirits and pleasing the gods -- and when it gets away from that, it loses its way. Theatre is "with the divine through elaborate rituals. The fact that shamanism foreshadows theatre is evident in the existence of theatrical elements that are present in a shamanistic ritual. These include song, dance, music, characterization, hypnotism, illusion, clowning, and ventriloquism." Certainly older forms including things like chanting, music, and dance. Oral storytelling was certainly included.

In many ways theatre has moved farther and farther away from every one of these elements. While there's not a lot of song and dance in Shakespeare, this poetic language in fact keeps it well in place (and the regular rhythms of iambic pentameter brings it close to chant). Clowning is certainly not uncommon in Shakespeare, and his works of illusion are truly hypnotic, as their continued popularity proves.

At the same time,  one has to wonder what would happen if these elements were more explicitly introduced. We're talking going beyond musical theatre to something older, more ancient, more fundamental to who we are as human beings.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Ego and Teaching the Humanities

Is it possible to teach literature without getting one's own ego involved? That is essentially what Joseph Pearce accuses professors of literature -- indeed, humanities professors in general -- of doing in his article "What Has Become of the Liberal Arts?" in The Freeman. And I think that boils down to the complaint almost everyone not involved in teaching the humanities (and many of us with degrees in the humanities) has against how the humanities are taught.

It is of course hard to get one's own ego out of the work one does. This is true even of physicists, who more often than not give up on their pet theories only after their deaths. But while science may progress one funeral at a time, the humanities hardly let death kill off a theory.

Of course, the best science teachers keep their own egos out of what they teach to the greatest degree possible. But it seems that as we move more and more toward more complex sciences and on into the humanities, ego becomes an increasingly central part of what is taught to students and how it's taught. There are far too many in the social sciences who are going to let a few inconvenient facts get in the way of a good theory. And the humanities don't even have to worry about facts. A few accusations go a long way toward molding minds' opinions about the value of a large number of works.

There are of course a few who do try to bring in some facts in the study of literature -- Jonathan Gottschall, Joseph Carroll, Lisa Zunshine, Frederick Turner, et al -- but they are too often marginalized and outright ignored. Of course part of the problem is that the science they bring to bear is typically some sort of preferred social science and/or psychological theory to which the postmodernists provide as answer their own preferred social sciences and/or psychological theories. Of course, one could argue that the preferred theories of the postmodern humanities professors -- Marxism, Freudianism, etc. -- are by and large discredited within their respective fields (of economics and psychology, in the specific cases given) or by the evidence of history itself (in the case of Marx), but the postmodernists have an out in that they can simply claim that humans are blank slates, that truth is relative, etc.

Unfortunately, the solution may not necessarily be to try to remove one's ego from what one teaches. For example, I once set up an online undergraduate ethics class. The textbook presents a variety of theories of ethics, as well it should. But it occurred to me that if I were to teach that class by simply presenting the theories, my students would come away thinking that ethics was relative. I would have to present to them my own ideas on ethics, which involves a more pluralistic approach (the theories are all right in the right contexts) rooted in an evolved morality. In doing so, I can hardly be said to be unbiased in my presentation. But in this case, if I am unbiased, my students will more likely to walk away postmodern relativists than if I present my own ideas as part of the class.

It may be that we cannot argue against the inclusion of the professors' egos in teaching the humanities. Or even the social sciences. What we only ever end up doing is arguing for our own preference. Which itself is a bit of a postmodern conclusion, I'm afraid.

Tuesday, September 06, 2016

A 21st Century Education? Or a 19th Century Prussian Education?

It occurs to me that my current job should be mostly superfluous.

One occasionally hears the rhetoric that children ought to receive a 21st century education. Which makes me wonder why they're receiving a 19th century Prussian education on test-steroids. That's anything but a 21st century education.

If we wanted to give students a truly 21st century education, we would be doing this. Each and every student should walk in and pick up their iPad or equivalent and start using a set of computer programs designed to teach them to read, write, do math, learn science, learn social studies, etc. Each child would work at his or her own pace, and they could help each other.

The teachers in such a situation would be little more than facilitators. If there were students who couldn't get along for some reason, they could easily be moved, since there's no particular reason any child would have to be in any particular room for any of this to happen. The teachers would go around and make sure that the students were doing the work that was on the iPads, but if the iPads were properly programmed, even that wouldn't really be all that necessary.

The evidence of such programs around the world is very promising. These approaches have mostly been tried in developing countries, but U.S. education is often little better than most developing countries' educational systems anyway. But the origin of innovations shouldn't matter in the least. If something is working to educate children in one place in the world, it will work anywhere else, because human beings are fundamentally the same. We mostly all learn the same, think the same, etc. Those of us who are exceptions also, as it turns out, learn best using computer programs (people like me are almost certainly the ones who programmed them in the first place anyway).

Let's face it. The U.S. is nowhere near a 21st century educational system. It isn't in the interest of any education bureaucrat to make it one. But it most certainly is in their interest to make teaching more and more and more and more and more difficult so they are ensured jobs. Which is precisely why education is currently a bureaucratic nightmare driven by testing rather than places of learning. Places of learning don't need bureaucrats. And a truly 21st century place of learning doesn't need people like me, either.

But I'll take the pay all the same.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

A Review of Part of Gene Callahan's Review

In The Review of Austrian Economics Gene Callahan reviews Austrian Economics Perspectives on Individualism and Society: Moving Beyond Methodological Individualism, Guinevere Nell, ed., in which I have a chapter "On the Varieties of Spontaneous Orders." Callahan singles out several essays to complement and criticize, and mine is one he criticizes.

Now, I am hardly above criticism. I could have perhaps defined culture better than I did (though I may have used the definition I did for a purpose), and I perhaps could have been a little more precise here and there, but what he defines as a "vacuous platitude" is really no more vacuous than the one he replaces it with. More, he takes the sentence out of context, failing to mention why I may have said what I said in that particular location in that essay and emphasized that particular point rather than the opposite point. In other words, yes, there is little doubt that there are plenty of things in other cultures which we could and should criticize. But equally, the mere fact that there is something in another culture which is different from our culture or how we do things in our culture, that doesn't mean it's necessarily bad. Which is the point. Difference may be good, may be bad, and may be neutral. Given that there are still those who think difference is bad, or that reversing the West is Good and the Other is Bad to the West is Bad and the Other is Good as the postmodernists have done strongly suggests that this point still needs to be made.

Callahan also seems to think that whatever the Pope thinks or historians think negates some of my arguments, as though either are infallible on these issues. There is in fact strong evidence that technological innovations drove scientific discoveries. Yes, there was a change in ideas, but the ideas actually followed the desire to do science unmolested, and the science was driven by technology. Improvements in lenses resulted in better telescopes which resulted in changes in ideas or in the adoption of certain older ideas over other older ideas. I will take his criticism about my statements about religion being concerned about the "world of abstraction" as being a case of less than precise language. However, let us look at the statement in context:
Among the wisdom orders, philosophy should be considered the most abstract, dealing as it does in ideas – often with little or no concern for the real world. Religion, on the other hand, is deeply concerned with the real world, and the ramifications of what we do in this world for the world of abstraction (however conceived). Art and literature (see Camplin 2010 on the arts and literature as spontaneous orders), on the other hand, always deal with the physical world, either directly in the use of physical objects, or indirectly in having concrete referents (the worst thing you can do in fiction or poetry is to be completely abstract – you are no longer creating literature, but rather philosophy, when you are). We of course see any number of overlaps among these orders. Consider all of the religious art, music, poetry, etc. Consider the philosophers who were also religious figures and leaders. Indeed, one of the most productive times in French literature and philosophy was when philosophy and literature overlapped during the Existentialist period. But note that for this to occur, each order must exist as a spontaneous order and be free to interact; when the Soviet Union attempted to impose the philosophy of historical materialism onto literature, the result was bland, identical Soviet Realism.
 In the essay I had delineated several kinds of spontaneous orders and classified them. I argued that there were spontaneous orders that dealt with abstractions, those that dealt with the real world, and those that dealt with a mixture of the two. I argued, for example, that mathematical discovery was in the realm of pure abstraction, technological innovation was in the realm of pure concreteness, and that the natural sciences took place in the realm of concreteness and abstraction. In this paragraph, I made the argument that there were three spontaneous orders we could consider to be "wisdom orders," and which included philosophy in the realm of pure abstraction, the arts and literature in the realm of pure concreteness, and religion in both realms, concerned with real-world realizations of certain kinds of abstractions. Given that his example was a mathematical example, and I had already discussed the mathematical order as a realm of a certain kind of abstraction, one can either conclude that he was either purposefully choosing to misunderstand what I was saying or he has some difficulty with textual analysis and understanding. Each sentence must be taken within the context of not only its own paragraph, but the section in which it's embedded and the chapter, in this case, in which it was found. My statement is very confusing when taken out of context as it was, and it may still be somewhat less clear than it ought to be, but it's not as confusing as he makes it out to be when we place it in its proper context.

We can truly see how petty and purposefully obtuse Callahan is being when he makes the comment that cosmologists are trying to understand the entire universe "which includes us." First, he is about as completely wrong as humanly possible, and he knows it. Cosmologists are interested in studying the movements of planets, stars, galaxies, and other interstellar and intergalactic phenomena. They are not at all interested in parliamentary procedures. And he knows damn well they're not. They are in fact interested in a set of very simple phenomena which follow relatively simple laws. What they study is at a very low level of complexity. Which hardly makes what they study any less difficult.

As a summary of "kinds of spontaneous orders," I had intended to spur people to think about the complexity of our societies and to thus encourage people to start thinking about studying those different kinds of social orders. This includes democracy, which I did not create an argument for being a spontaneous order precisely because, as I note, diZerega has already done so. Surely references to others' work precludes a lengthy argument when the purpose of the paper is in part to summarize a variety of spontaneous orders. If he wanted a lengthy argument for the proposition that democracy is a spontaneous order, he can by all means to read the works to which I referred.

Finally, to return to the beginning of his criticisms of my chapter, I will note that he completely missed the point of my discussion of heterogeneous vs. homogeneous cultures. What he completely fails to mention in the criticism is that I was making a point about the importance diversity when we have the same institutions. He leaves out that important distinction I make, which is really a distinction made by the paper I cite. Again, it was not my job in this paper to completely reiterate others' arguments in the papers I cite, but to pull out certain points relevant to my argument, which is that heterogeneity of spontaneous orders creates a healthier civil society than one would have in civil society in which a single order dominated and that institutions matter when it comes to the overall health of cultures and civil society and the interactions among all the spontaneous orders. But again, he has to take my comment completely out of context to make the point he does.

Certainly Callahan is not the only person guilty of completely misunderstanding (or misrepresenting, if we want to be less generous) what he reads by taking something completely out of context. It seems to be a common sin by altogether too many readers. It is as though each sentence being read is completely disconnected from every other sentence in the work in question. There is a certain strain of postmodern deconstruction in which decontextualization is emphasized. Thus, we have "the death of the author" and dissociation of texts from their cultural contexts. Somehow this trend has extended itself not just to decontextualizing texts from their authors and cultures, but decontextualizing the very sentences within a given text. That is the only way I can understand the criticisms of people like Callahan while still having the generosity of assuming that they are completely well-meaning in their reviews and criticisms.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Apocalypse by Frederick Turner

The SciFi epic poet (and new formalist/expansive poet and universal genius), Frederick Turner, has a new epic poem: Apocalypse. It's being serialized for free. Enjoy!!!

Thursday, August 04, 2016

Hear the Screams of the Butterfly

My novella Hear the Screams of the Butterfly has been published by Transcendent Zero Press and can be purchased at Amazon and here.

Read an interview of me in which I discuss the novella here.

Be sure to go buy your copy now! It makes a great birthday or Christmas gift!