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!

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Tolerance vs. Acceptance

For the longest time we have sought to ensure greater tolerance for our fellow human beings. We are told we should tolerate other races, other ethnicities, other genders, other sexual orientations, other ways of living and of thinking. And this was important once upon a time (and still is for some people), when the knee-jerk response to difference was to burn the person at the stake. When that's the natural response, then getting people to simply be willing to tolerate other people's existence is a move in the right direction.

But we should not be satisfied with tolerance.

I don't want to be tolerated. To be tolerated means to be put up with. You live over there and let me pretend you don't exist.

I want to be accepted. I want "be yourself" to be meant literally, and when I am myself, that self is appreciated. I want to be enjoyed and loved and I want people to be excited by my presence.

And so do you.

My parents always tolerated the things I (and my brother) wanted to do. They tolerated my interests, but never really encouraged any of them (and discouraged others, such as music). They tolerated my choice of what to major in in college (recombinant gene technology) when they really thought I ought to major in pre-med or pre-law to become a doctor or a lawyer. They were hardly supportive of my deciding to get a Master's in English, and even when I graduated with my Ph.D. in the humanities, my father asked me if I regretted not finishing my Master's in biology (by then he had come around to majoring in biology).

I did the things I did despite the direct lack of support. They never stood in my way, but my parents never quite supported me, either.

I get the same thing with everyone's attitude toward autism, though to be honest, it's only just barely tolerated at all. And nobody wants to understand it, let along appreciate it.

I've had a few along the way who did encourage me. Those were the people who made the difference. There was a biology/chemistry teacher in high school and a biology teacher at the Governor's Scholars Program I did one summer who both encouraged my interests in genetics. There was a poet at WKU who encouraged my poetry. I was eventually encouraged (after some pretty harsh criticism) in my fiction writing at USM. And I was encouraged in my scholarly work at UTD by my dissertation committee. I was encouraged by a theater owner when it came to my plays (too bad the theater went out of business before we could stage my first full length play). This summer my wife has been incredibly encouraging as I have had to go through six weeks of training, which included 5 weeks of  teaching summer school.

Each gave me the strength to go on.

That's the difference between tolerance and acceptance. Those who accept actively participate in our success through encouragement to be who we are. Those who tolerate simply get out of the way. Sometimes that's necessary, but isn't it much better to have a helping hand through life? It's it better to have people love you for who you deeply, truly are?

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Fiction for Empathy in Bibliotherapy

It's wonderful to see there are people out there making a living and a career out of the very insights and understandings of literature as developing empathy I've been developing for several years now. I've written about these things here and here and here And now it's even made it to CNN.

The flight from fiction in our culture means reduced empathy creation. Yes, certain movies and even TV shows can contribute to empathy-creation, but I think that books allow us to more deeply investigate and understand the complex motives of people, and thus learn to understand and therefore empathize with them.

What we need is the kind of bibliotherapy being practiced in the CNN article. We need to read fiction that deals with different races, men and women, different sexual orientations and genders, different cultures, and different socioeconomic levels. In doing so, we would stop discriminating against people just because they are members of different groups.

We shouldn't hate people because they are black or white, men or women, gay or straight, rich or poor, etc., etc., etc. The socialists are just as evil for hating a group of people because of their socioeconomic status as are the racists for hating a group of people because of their race. Literature allows us to understand different groups through examples of particular individuals we get to know well, and thus literature breaks down collectivist (and therefore evil) ways of thinking.

The above statement seems to contradict some of what I say here. Indeed, certain kinds of empathizing do in fact make us more tribalist/collectivist in our thinking. But there is something else at work when we learn to empathize with other groups, and other groups, and other groups. If our empathy breaks down the Us-Them, Self-Other dichotomy, then empathy contributes to moral growth. If it only reinforces group cohesiveness such that there is necessarily a hated other against which one compares one's group, then empathy contributes to moral decay.

Literature can thus contribute to virtue-creating empathy if we are open to reading works presenting and representing peoples from other cultures, etc. This can and should be done in our classrooms. But we should not make the mistake of thinking that any work by someone from another culture, etc. than our own is worth reading. The works have to be complex, high-value literary works, regardless of who wrote them where or when. After all, boring garbage is hardly going to create any sort of empathy for anyone.