When Ideology Reigns, Humanism Suffers: November’s Fundamental Choice

Mitt Romney’s selection of Congressman Paul Ryan as his VP demonstrates a conservative embrace of ideology. Ideological pursuits are anathema to humanism. Ideological pursuits negate the struggle indicative of the human journey towards anything resembling self-reliance, which is, ironically, what Ryan, et al, are suggesting we pursue. Ideologies tend to nurture solipsism and harbor a disdain for democratic decision making. Ideologies silence hope and give voice only to the most dominant. Ideologies establish a vituperative vertical system run by the inflexibly self-righteous.

November’s presidential election is asking that we either abide by a strict ideology suggesting that in times of confusion and insecurity we let in a version of Big Brother, as Whitaker Chamber’s suggests in his elegant review of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, or about pursuing a humanistic road, with its roots in Socrates and Romanticism, and emphasizing the individual’s drive towards self-actualization. These are our choices: the Republican’s pursuit of a strict ideology or the Democrat’s insistence that we protect self-actualization (they can surely be criticized for not nurturing it, however). How’s that for black and white?

Ideologies require a simple good vs bad dichotomy. So we’re forced to speak this way, as I’ve done, above. Humanism is cloudy, messy and ambiguous because it confirms the existence of “human nature.” An ideological apparatus denies the relevance of “human nature,” arguing that a person can be disciplined into a way of life, a way of thinking. The problem with this, of course, is that ideologies need efficient ways of transmitting discipline. Enter Paul Ryan. And in case anyone missed the point I’m making, Ryan’s appointment has been followed by another: New Jersey Governor Chris Christie will speak at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla. The junkyard dog is being released to bark and threaten, show his teeth. The ideological center of the GOP means business. Mitt Romney is actually rather unimportant at this point, which is always the case when a fine tuned ideology trumps everything — and everyone.

The last, great conservative, when we actually had the semblance of a public sphere in America, William F. Buckley, who, when he died, left a void currently being filled by buffoons, said, on Charlie Rose, that Rand’s Atlas Shrugged is “ideological fabulism.” In Rand’s Atlas, so passionately embraced by Paul Ryan and conservatives, it would be very easy to send anyone to the gas chamber, says Buckley. Fascism follows. And it is a world that, for us right now, as we watch China and other economies begin to scale — and dominate — makes sense; it is, after all, the China model. “The fight we’re in here,” said Paul Ryan following Rand, “is a fight of individualism versus collectivism.” Any questions? Only individualism doesn’t trump collectivism; in American Philosophy, they co-exist and can actually thrive.

The other ideology Ryan embraces is Catholicism, though no one is speaking about it, not critically. In Catholicism, the institution, the Church, speaks for God; it is Christ, it is God, it is everything. The see of Rome. Disciples talk about the Church as if it’s alive, body and soul. Ideological fabulism? Ryan very easily conflates Rand and Catholicism. Rand is the secular Catholic (though embracing abortion because it’s a woman’s right) that is not thinking about universality, rather she’s thinking about allegiance. Catholicism, for instance, would not exist if it wasn’t for poverty — and the allegiance to its doctrine by the poor — and the uneducated suffering; it has an interest in maintaining this imbalance so that it can prey – pray on and for them, simultaneously. This is the slippery slope we’re on — a hall of mirrors. On this Ryan trip, we might see Mel Gibson appointed Ambassador to Israel, just to teach them a thing or two because they’re too reliant on us. Opus Dei might enter the White House’s inner sanctum.

Don’t get me wrong: I believe in faith. I have faith — in my journey towards self-actualization, in the sense that I can be better, and in the notion that in these pursuits consistent with self-reliance, I want to be judged by you, another human being pursuing his / her self-actualization. I have a responsibility to myself, my family, my community. I can be better at all of these — without Paul Ryan – Rand. And I also know that a partner in this journey should also be a government that does not obstruct, rather it nurtures, it listens, it enters into a dialog with my needs and my community’s needs. This is the idea of America, words Ryan frequently uses; however, if we want to talk about this idea we have to begin with faith in each other. We have to acknowledge the idea’s Romanticism chiseled from the Enlightenment.

Alexander Hamilton, in the General Introduction to the Federalist Papers, says the following:

Among the most formidable of the obstacles which the new Constitution will have to encounter may readily be distinguished the obvious interest of a certain class of men in every State to resist all changes which may hazard a diminution of the power, emolument, and consequence of the offices they hold under the State establishments; and the perverted ambition of another class of men, who will either hope to aggrandize themselves by the confusions of their country, or will flatter themselves with fairer prospects of elevation from the subdivision of the empire into several partial confederacies than from its union under one government.

This is conservatism in its most enlightened form. So I wonder: instead of the ideological fabulism of Ayn Rand, made doubly more perverse by Ryan’s Catholic closing of the American mind, why aren’t we talking about Hamilton and the Federalist Papers? That’s our earliest notion of America. Isn’t Hamilton more relevant than Rand’s self-righteous — and nasty — inflexibility? “Were there not even these inducements to moderation,” says Hamilton, “nothing could be more ill-judged than that intolerant spirit which has at all times characterized political parties. For in politics, as in religion, it is equally absurd to aim at making proselytes by fire and sword. Heresies in either can rarely be cured by persecution.”

Welcome to America, where candidates swing into battlegrounds to do war. America, as we see everywhere, is not in tune with Hamilton, with moderation. “On the other hand,” says Hamilton, “it will be equally forgotten that the vigor of government is essential to the security of liberty;…that a dangerous ambition more often lurks behind the specious mask of zeal for the rights of the people than under the forbidding appearance of zeal for the firmness and efficiency of government.” Real Housewives, reality tv, the Kardashians, the glory and violence of the most popular sport in America, football — all these things trend towards a collective mind set that abides by a stricter, black and white, easily definable morality, even if some have to suffer. This is a gruesome sign that we’re a lost nation as we ping pong back and forth over an ideological net bent on moving us towards the complete control of our human right to determine who we are, each of us.

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The Coming Plague: the RYAN – Romney Ticket to the Middle Ages

Is anybody scared?

I am. I’m very scared. Very.

Mitt Romney’s selection of Paul Ryan as his VP running mate is a throwing down of the gauntlet: America is going to abide by a stringent hierarchy that will impose a highly structured system that won’t bend – for you or anyone; each class will be identifiable — and verifiable. We will have different Americas. Some Americans will be on the inside, others will forever remain on the outside. It’s all we can afford, so pick yourself up by your bootstraps — and if you can’t, oh well.

This is the election: do we continue to struggle on the demanding, bumpy road towards freedom(s) for each and everyone of us, working really hard, in difficult times, to re-adjust social mobility and tolerance, or do we give that up for a sure place on a ladder’s rung without being able to control (a) which rung we land on and (b) without being able to move the ladder this way and that, this angle and that, re-adjusting it in concordance with great suffering — and there will be plenty of suffering.

Mitt Romney’s selection of Paul Ryan as his VP running mate is a window into who the Republic Presidential candidate actually is and how he works. Romney’s selection is a window into his soul, a dark, foreboding place. It’s obvious now.

Romney is the second coming of “W.” Romney, like W, is willing to be used. With W came Cheney, a very powerful, intelligent and articulate conservative, with hands in some of the most powerful pockets in the world — oil, defense, Wall Street, fundamentalist capitalists. He changed the course of history — and W went along. Cheney’s and W’s tack caused deaths, depravation and a furthering of the American decline: the 2008 economy, Iraq and Afghanistan, Bin Laden running around like a lunatic planning his next destruction, education nearly collapsing, the greatest economic separation among Americans in history. The evidence is indisputable. This was the world handed to Obama and Biden.

Those same forces that gave us W and Cheney are now stronger; they’ve learned from their loss to Obama. Now they’ve forced Ryan onto Romney. Ryan’s economic plan will float money upwards, much like Cheney loved to have power and influence float upward only to him, then he could push the punk, W, around. Romney’s been pushed, for sure; Ryan has the upper hand.  Ayn Rand is winning, an early influence on Ryan, he admits. (I read Rand as  teenager, too, but had the instinct to turn away.)

If I’m not telling the truth, saying it like it is, watch the 60 Minutes Interview that aired last night, Sunday, August 12th.

Romney is cautiously in love. And Ryan can hardly sit still, so enthralled is he to describe his vision. He’s so excited with his new stage that he had to hold back from jumping in with data and projections, deferring to Romney’s jingoistic responses to rather soft questions. When Ryan speaks, Romney looks like a puppy that’s having his belly scratched, grinning from ear to ear. But his eyes, they tell a different story: watch it, this guy is really ambitious — and he can talk better then I can.

What’s he saying? For starters, we’re learning that Romney will have less control. We’re also learning that Ryan’s plan controls from the top.

The Romney-Ryan plan wants less social welfare drag, more struggle in the under classes, more riches at the top of the income ladder. It’s not a solution to our problems, it’s merely a re-distribution of a dwindling pie. Re-distribution, according to Ryan, can only happen by guaranteeing denial of benefits to Americans that are in trouble and struggling, hurting, maybe even confused and vulnerable. Ryan’s plan never looks at the reasons for our state being the way it is. The market place will then run free and produce growth; however, what kind of growth this is, we don’t know. What we do know is that growth depends on how rules and regulations are erased — particularly when these rules pertain to the environment and the extraction of natural resources by international corporations.

The gamble is that Ryan’s plan will provoke the upper-middle class and the socially unconscious. It goes something like this: People are always willing pay for the good life. Let’s take it. Make it. Sell it. Let’s take it now. Screw it. Climate change. Dwindling resources. Hell, there may not be a tomorrow. Let’s take it before it’s too late. Down the road, after much wealth is acquired and it all works out, maybe we’ll have the technologies in place that will allow us to tack back a bit. But for now, let’s take it. What do we have to lose?

Ryan’s plan is medieval. We’ve seen it before — the lord, his serfs and the anonymous living in abject poverty reliant on hand-outs from the serfs. Free market enterprise is the moat — free meaning that to profit one must be socially mobile to access open, competitive enterprise where there are rules that guarantee a kind of success, provided that monopolizing capital is something you’re willing to go along with. It’s a wonderful life.

But no one has a crystal ball. Obama and Biden could win. Romney and Ryan could win and end up paralyzed by a congress that opposes them, having to redefine their harsh perspective on the American future. In the meantime, as each party lobs insults to the other — and at the American people — we can feel safe in knowing that there are dark, harsh forces out there —  we can see them and identify them; it’s not a conspiracy at all —  throwing tons of money into the Romney – Ryan coffers, perhaps because they see the ticket as being Ryan – Romney.

I’m scared. Very scared of that!

Gabby Douglas and the True Story of the Olympics

This is may be one of the most significant Olympic Games in history but the story — why is it so important? — has yet to be told. Let’s tell it.

Gabby Douglas — winner of the individual all around gold medal in gymnastics, the team gold (as I write, she failed to medal in the balance beam, a ghastly apparatus, opening the field for Ali Raisman who went on to win a gold in the women’s floor exercise) and the first African American to reach this pinnacle of success — is the perfect way into this Olympic story about the (permanent?) dissolution of boundaries.

Douglas’ story has moved us. It has caused some confusion as well. At the heart of the confusion is the story that’s yet to be told about these Olympic Games. It’s a story of possibilities, of a better, brighter tomorrow. It’s what we’ve been waiting for — the humanity we long for: people of disparate backgrounds coming together to bring out the best that a person can physical do, regardless of race, ethnicity and religion.

The story about these Olympic Games is not about broken records and who won the most medals; it’s about the coming apart of rigid boundaries — nationalism, socioeconomic divisions, race and ethnicity; it’s about how these man-made constraints are dissolving, being replaced by cooperation and collaboration.

Social media has gone wild with Ms. Douglas. Congratulations and self-adulation, as Americans, abound. But there is something deeper happening on social media: on one end of the scale comments are paralyzed by the trivial, wondering about Douglas’ hair, for instance, as if this is important; on the other extreme there are questions about the media’s insistence that Gabby has two mothers, and one is white. Much of the social commentary is perplexed by the media privileging the whiteness of one mother, and in the same sentence suggesting that Gabby couldn’t have done it without this white Iowa mother. These comments remind me of something Cornel West once said (I’m paraphrasing): beware of the white liberal that believes that the African American needs the white savior.

Social media chatter, as it’s always destined, falls short. There is no analysis so we can’t go to the next level of the story, beyond the manufactured constraints that compel us to repeat what separates us, over and over, as if we can’t think beyond what’s served up as Reason.

Natalie Hawkins, Gabby’s mother, says that, “It’s true what they say, it takes a village to raise a child.” Ms. Hawkins opens her story by announcing her trust in love as a universal unifier, a way towards trust and collaboration. Yes. Love. That subject — and word — we never talk about (Kristof, in endless depictions of our soulless world, never raises the obvious subject). Yet, given what we face as a civilization, I feel we’re compelled to do so because it’s the only way to break down the man-made barriers that keep us down — and apart. Trusting love is Ms . Hawkins’ message — and the story of these Olympics.

Gabby was a very active child, to say the least, according to Ms. Hawkins. Gabby’s older sister suggested, to her mother, that she place Gabby in gymnastic classes. Ms. Hawkins agreed — and the rest is now history, two gold medals. It’s obvious that in this household, everyone has their shoulders to the wheel; that is to say, love and what accompanies it — cooperation, collaboration, empathy and honest dialog — are at the heart of the Hawkins family. The result is trust. Nothing supernatural here. I love you, that’s all, I need you. That’s it. The most frightening things to say to someone because it comes with vulnerability — and it has to be returned equally. Ms. Hawkins’ family, at a vulnerable time, relied on one another for answers, for direction. And Love and Trust opened their worlds to what was, at one point in their lives, hardly imaginable. It can be like this for all of us.

As she evolved and matured, Gabby’s ambitions could not be denied. Ms. Hawkins trusted that what she saw in her young child, which at the time was not a gold medal winner, (a long shot, given the odds of something like this ever happening), was true. Let me put it another way: a young mother who knew absolutely nothing about gymnastics, trusts what she sees, trusts her young daughter, the spirit in her talent. This is only possible when one firmly believes that love is a guiding principal: vulnerability, which is an obvious strength, compels us to turn to love because in love there has to be trust.

What happened next is significant because it’s an important — and dramatic — theme of the Olympic Games: Natalie Hawkins and Gabby sought out Liang Chow, from Beijing China, living in West Des Moines, Iowa, where, with his wife, Lewin Zhuang, opened Chow’s Gymnastics and Dance Institute in 1998. Chow is a former gymnast and personally coached Shawn Johnson to Olympic Gold in 2008.

Shawn Johnson, and now Ms. Hawkins and Gabby, placed their trust in Mr. Chow. They saw beyond ethnicity, beyond gender. But we’re getting a bit ahead of ourselves. First, Ms. Hawkins had to see beyond her own sense of race, and trust whiteness, a white family living in a blue state, Iowa, that from Virginia Beach, Virginia, must have seemed like an ocean away.

Media and politicians, both, have constructed a Harry Potter-like narrative that keeps playing over and over; it’s simple: it’s always about good vs evil. But this is not true at all. Our existence is forever relegated to the gray areas of life, the not easily understood, where each one of us has to make moral decisions that require we examine our hearts and our minds. This is how we try to navigate our realities. For Ms. Hawkins, she had to read her heart, her daughter’s, and the Parton’s, too, to understand how to trust beyond the disabling mediated rhetoric so content on delivering the simplest denominator, good vs evil. Reality for Ms. Hawkins — and Ms. Parton and her family — is somewhere beyond black and white, good and evil. It’s more fluid, more consistent and virtuous. Hawkins and Parton, tell us in their story, that we live together, suffer together and that we can love someone that is completely different from who we are; we can even love enough to help the Other reach unimaginable dreams. Gabby Douglas is case in point. This is the true story — not the gold, though Gabby’s success is amazing, and it’s not Gabby’s hair, since it has nothing to do with anything, other then to suggest that many on social media insisting on the subject have somehow been relegated to the margins of society where reality tv, the Kardashians, and Dancing With Anyone are it.

In Des Moines, Iowa, loved by her mother, Natalie, Gabby Douglas lived with the love of the Partons, a different kind of love, and worked with and trusted a Chinese coach that she originally saw on television. This is the solution to our problems; this is what the Olympic Games are telling us: boundaries have been broken; and there are people willing to help us break down more barriers .

The great runner, Alberto Salazar , coached the gold medal winner and the silver medal winner in the ten thousand meters. Salazar was born in Cuba in 1958. He moved with his family to the US, migrating to Massachusetts. He’s best remembered, perhaps, for his New York Marathons in the early ’80s. Mo Farah, running for Great Britain, electrified the crowd winning the gold. Close behind, the American, Galen Rupp, won the silver, marking the first time, since Billy Mills won in Tokyo in 1964, that an American medalled. During the race, the NBC commentator wondered whether Farah and Rupp would run as a team, though from competing countries, to counterbalance the strong Ethiopians and Kenyans. They did and kept to the same Salazar strategy: the race is won in the last 100 yards. So we have a Cuban-American training a Somalian and an American — and the Somalian, having arrived in Great Britain at the age of 8, matured to be one of the country’s favorite athletes.

It’s not about what country I’m from, nor is it about the perceived constraints I think have been placed on me; it’s about dreaming, first, then finding a path, a journey that must begin with love and followed by empathy and cooperation. Then, and only then, will we find cooperation, such that each and every soul will be able to dream, plan and execute with the help of others; they, in turn, will achieve the same, in their own time, with their own prescriptions.

We’ve seen these blurring of boundaries throughout the Olympics: athletes from different countries, training in each other’s countries and sharing foreign coaches. Nationalism holds nothing in. The Olympics have become like much of what we buy: Made in fill in the blank. In essence, the Olympics are finally living up to their goal of bringing all of us together. The desire to win, to push towards — and in some cases beyond — our perceived capacities, have lead us to reach beyond man made boundaries. And if we look a little harder, we learn that these boundaries have, to date, been disabling. We win when boundaries dissolve.

The Gabby Douglas story is about breaking boundaries that, for years, have been disabling us. Salazar, Farah and Rupp show us the same. In literally every sport, in these games, the same can be found : it’s the new truth.

And this coming Thursday, the US Women’s Olympic Team, coached by Sweden’s legendary player, Pia Sundhage, will meet Japan. The US team got to the finals after beating Canada in what was a most dramatic game. Ten of the eleven Canadians, announced the NBC color commentator, play in the US. Who won that game? US Soccer? Soccer or fútbol as a universal equalizer? Can we continue to talk about winners and losers as if these happen in a vacuum held tightly by nationalism? Do we need to begin to speak about humanity’s role in fostering the love, trust, and patience we each know we require to forge ahead — and win medals?

The US Olympic (Dream) Basketball Team hasn’t had it so easy. Why? Because everywhere they turn, they bump up against other (foreign) NBA players. Nothing is the same anymore.

The Olympic Games are no longer about who wins the most medals. These games are about why some countries win more then others given the level of communication and dynamic interactions the most powerful nations enjoy with each other. The Olympic Games are offering a model for success that does not pit one against the other behind plastic barriers, rather, the games demonstrate that the cross-pollination — training, philosophies, education — truly enables each and every individual to work to her or his capacity. In this way, it truly is one person against another — not one country against another — in healthy competition, even in team sports. This is the Olympic hope. It has finally brought forth the importance of love, vulnerability and trust to the forefront. This level of collaboration and cooperation is the only antidote for our apparent decline; it’s a road, with visible success, that we can all travel. But we must all be willing to push boundaries back, be these geographic, institutional and national.  Let’s call it, Gabby’s Model.

Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, Religion and the Higgs Boson: How the World Turns — and Is Turning?

Like many things in life, it depends on what you want to hear.

Whether you’re a religious person and don’t believe there’s a chance in hell for the Higgs Boson to exist, a devoutly religious person that denies priests are fondling children — and concealing it — or a Scientologist that believes, after donating thousands upon thousands of dollars, your soul or “thetan” is a reincarnation that has lived on other planets before living on Earth, such as Tom Cruise, recent (apparent) scientific discoveries in Geneva, Switzerland suggest that, though we may not want to hear some things, we should question everything, but in particular, the largest, most powerful science fiction story of all — or scam, take your pick — the creation of organized religion that is the bane of our existence.

Higgs Boson

Let’s begin, then, almost at the beginning.

“There comes a time,”Aldous Huxley wrote, “when one asks even of Shakespeare, even of Beethoven, is this all?”

The oldest religion, dating back to the early Harappan period (5500-2600 BCE), is Hinduism. Neither the pursuit nor the attainment of the world’s visible rewards brings true happiness, suggests Hinduism. Might not, then, becoming a part of a larger, more significant whole relieve life of its triviality, after all, we all want meaning?

This question alone gives birth to religion — and slowly and energetically moves from an existential question to the “opium of the people.” Without falling into the ridiculous arguments generated by ill-prepared politicians and journalist hacks, let’s just say, avoiding the term, Marxist, that Karl was right on this one. Marx actually said, “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of the soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” If we take this “Marxist” notion and apply today, we can see that if fits, it works.

Name a poor community in America where you don’t hear, “It’s God’s will” uttered by people that are homeless and suffering from some institutionalized mandate, whether it’s zoning and the lack of health care and environmental degradation, and climate change and just plain old inhumanity, such as the lack of social mobility, particularly through education.

Name a time that has been more heartless then our own whereby in the name of God and Allah we are separating, maming, killiing and destroying people simply because they view the world differently — or better, we need their resources and we need their strategic location from which to launch our control over needed resources.

In the name of God — who we say we trust — we rob the poor, in our own country and elsewhere (the evidence is overwhelming), then give them guns, and to keep our attention busy, we fly drones over the helpless, in the USA and elsewhere. And we, the citizens of this country that says, “In God We Trust,” turn from our inhumanity to all, and we’re suppose to be the most Christian, Sunday church going, Bible pounding nation in the world. What gives? But let’s not get ahead of ourselves, not in the name of God, anyway.

Let’s go back to the problem.

The question of Hindiusm — and all subsequent religions — What do people really want ? — becomes fundamental in creating orthodox structures that solicit obedience through dogma meant to respond to the question. Within these tightly structured boxes — or organizations — where allegiance is mandated above even faith, there is little room for debate, let alone creative disruption.

Hinduism tells us that the first thing we want is Being. We want to be rather than not be; normally, no one wants to die (Scientology has co-opted this narrative strain quite heavily).

Second, we want to know. We are instinctually curious, whether you’re a scientist probing the universe or at home with the family watching the news — we want to know. In fact, we’ll turn to gossip — or reality tv — just to get the sense that we know something, anything.

The third thing people seek is joy, a feeling tone that is opposite frustration, futility, and boredom. Hinduism — and all other religions — prescribe a road to this sense of joy, provided one follow a strict path. Allegiance comes first, followed by the embrace of a promise to live happily ever after in joy.

If we couple these three needs to the unique human capacity to think of something that has no limits, the infinite, we can see how Christianity, which began as a Jewish sect in the eastern Mediterranean in the mid-1st century, follows. And how, with Islam, both follow the notion that there is an uncorrupted monotheistic faith of Adam, Abraham, Moses, Jesus and other prophets, all of whom, first, try to answer the question, What do people want?, and, secondly, are the vanguards of strict organizations that get formed around the prophets’ ideas, long after these prophets are dead and buried, and try to conflate material reality with a science fiction pertaining to the afterlife, edenic spaces to experience life ever after, and even reincarnation suggesting that we’ve existed before, time traveling, century after century, year in and year, living and dying and being reborn again — perhaps into Tom Cruise — while all sorts of immoral actions are being leveled against the “flocks” of these organizations — and by the most staunch believers.

The latest insanity around Tom Cruise and Katy Holmes suggests that we’ve reached a pathetic end to these cloaked belief systems. Imagine the level of intelligence of people, celebreties or otherwise, that pursue a religion that was incorporated in 1953, by L. Ron Hubbard, a science fiction writer.  Hubbard created a rather false universe; it followed his treatise on self-help, Dianetics, describing a metaphysical relationship between the mind and the body.

But it makes some sort of sense, doesn’t it?

If we are in fact seeing the deterioration of monotheistic religions everywhere — and we are, simply based on the evidence of massive killings and the inhumanity being shown to the poor and the helpless in the name of God — and all these religions are, in fact, tales, stories, narratives that respond to the first question — What do people want? — it stands to reason that, after centuries we have been taught to find — and embrace — the ONE, the one man usually, that will respond to the question with a complex, albeit understandable, belief system that makes our desire to be, our desire to know and be curious palpable and manageable. (This notion, too, enters our political system big time, but the relation of religion and politics is yet another and larger story.)

Enter the Higgs Boson apparently discovered in Geneva the other day: picture a room full of people. We’ll call this the Higgs Field. Suddenly, in comes a person, a noted person. He steps into the room and begins to mingle, shake hands and so on; people gather around him or her. The more people gather around this person, the harder it is for this person to move. Then this mass of people begins to act — or move — as one. As one, it’s slow, large, difficult to move. Then a less popular person enters the room. Some break from the mass and move to the new person in the room — or field. This person’s mass is smaller, therefore it’s easier for this person to move about with his or her group. There you have the Higgs Boson. Without it, matter would not exist — we would not exist, and I wouldn’t be writing this. The Higgs is the foundation for matter, to put it plainly.

This is, apparently, the basis of the structure of the universe — and it is NOT the poorly named “God particle,” an The God Particleunfortunate statement made by Professor and Nobel Prize Winner Leon Lederman that titled his book, The God Particle: If the Universe Is the Answer, What is the Question? , providing a brief history of particle physics. No other physicist or scientist has used the term as such, according to Matt Strassler, theoretical physicist at Rutgers University.

If the Higss is not the “God particle,” then what it is?

It is a scientific discovery, first and foremost, data that explains our being; our desire to be has a scientific explanation. Secondly, the apparent discovery comes from our curiosity, our search for answers to the most fundamental of questions, but in a scientific way, rather than a science fiction approach that has its own place in our culture (another story). Finally, the discovery begins to turn the corner for human nature’s need to know where we come from, how we’re made and why. It may even provide a road to where we’re going.

This is the next story, the story to come, and it’s built on science, not on science fiction; it’s built on reason and intelligence, carefully constructed around mathematics and physics — the Standard Model — that, in turn, enable us to create fields of information that are varifiable.

Stories and myths are essential for the human condition; however, these have to be used appropriately, which is not to control, mandate, influence — and then punish — as a way to find happiness and peace later, after one’s death.

We can find joy and learn about each other, with science and poetics, myths and faith working in tandem, not as antagonists. The Higgs Boson calls attention to our diversity, which we are now challenged to accept and embrace.

Here’s a teaser for  you, finally: THE MASTER, a film by Paul Thomas Anderson, to be released soon. If you understand nothing of what I’ve said, see it in film form.

Under the Hood of Education: A View of the Classroom

Often, when I’m out socially (this is rare), I am asked about “education.” The questions go like this: “How’s school?” “Are you done yet?” “What do you think (about this or that on the news or concerning an opinion someone has heard)?”

I’ve found that the best way to respond is by telling a story that lifts the hood and exposes the education engine — or at at least a part of the engine. So here’s a story …

I teach a course that’s a typical (perhaps not ?) composition course for students who may lack some confidence writing — yes, even at Middlebury. It’s called Writing Workshop 0101A (I didn’t come up with the title; you can’t access the course without a password). Students read challenging literature, gain confidence interpreting what they read and learn how to move these interpretations into subjects for their writing. Easier said then done.

I’ve designed the course so that we read only one novel the entire 12 week semester, Don DeLillo’s 827 page Underworld (1997). Students always complain that they are given too much work; that they don’t have time to effectively ingest all the material that they’re given; that they learn for the test, then forget the material. I therefore pace this course as a response to these critical points, giving students the necessary time — and space — to think and reflect, dialog and write.

Students read approximately 160 pages every other week. The in-between weeks are for writing: students come into class with rough drafts and we peer-review; they also receive comments from me, one-on-one, and come to my office, too, to discuss their work as it’s being written. Lots of scaffolding. The course is labor intensive. Leading up to these writing workshop weeks, students are given in-class prompts relevant to what we’re reading in Underwrold — a passage, perhaps, or an entire section. Online, prior to coming to the class discussion on a particular sequence, students have been capturing major ideas and themes and posting them on a forum; they respond to each other, establishing a mellower, online version of our discussions. (I use these to touch on major points students make, and lecture in the gray areas.) Writing, then, happens all the time; it’s a model I want students to have: writing is not just for a grade, rather it’s a practice that should genuinely be done all the time; it’s a way to learn, to see yourself thinking; it’s a way to make sure we don’t lose what we’re thinking; and writing engenders life-long learning, which is what everyone in education says is desired.

For example (I’m trying to be quick about this explanation), Underworld begins with the famous prologue, “The Triumph of Death.” “He speaks in your voice, American,” says DeLillo, “and there’s a shine in his eyes that’s halfway hopeful.” The implications of this line for the rest of the narrative are significant — and daunting. We spend about 25 or so minutes discussing this line and the different paths it gives us into the narrative. Then I give the students a writing prompt (and 10 or so minutes to write in class, afterwards they share their insights): think back to a significant moment in your life that changed your life; this event was perhaps unexpected — or perhaps it was planned — either way, before the event you had one perspective, after you had another: what was going on in your life, the conditions of your life, including your community, family, and so on? what lead you to this event? what happened? Take us through it. And on the other end, the moral of the story is …?

I keep repeating these prompts, in different ways, circling the class, until all heads are down and the students are writing. I don’t care if students write on paper or on a computer (I have no rules against computers in the class, finding these, well, for lack of a better word, stupid: if you’re going to teach this generation, you better get used to — and learn how to — work with computers, cells phones, tablets, etc., in your class, otherwise you have no business being in the classroom).

In all, students will write 5 official essays in the course ( 5 – 7 pages each). What’s significant is that each student essay grows from this intial writing exersice, giving (a) students an entry into Underdworld (b), evolving a theme of the course: a piece of writing, a note, scribbling, a response to a prompt, done at any time, is relevant and can — and must — be used to evolve the more formal writing, and, finally, (c) students learn that they’re going to see, in Underworld, the narrative proper, only what they bring (experience) to the reading and writing act.

The role of the teacher in a writing course is to tap into these student experiences — the knowledge students already bring to the table. In a safe, creative space, students will expand creatively, moving from the deeply personal to the more subtle and complex world(s) of Underworld — but always able to see their signature, which began in their first paper. This is how writers work. I’ve chosen never to cloud this up with ridiculous rhetoric.

Sorry it took this long to get to this last point — what exactly is the knowledge students bring to the table? — but it’s critical to the rest of the story.

It’s important to note, at this time, that this exercise, these lessons, Underworld, is all happening inside an elite liberal arts college in New England. That is to say, we need to understand that the work I’m describing — and doing here — happens behind the hallowed ivy walls of a tradition that suggests that students are learning to think critically on their way to becoming strong, mindful and empathetic, self-reliant democractic citizens; that this tradition is “influenced by the Stoic goals of self-command, or taking charge of one’s own life through reasoning,” says Martha Nussbaum in Cultivating Humanity. And that what I’m trying to do, again quoting Nussbaum, is to arouse the mind, which is essential “for citizenship and for life, of producing students who can think clearly and justify their views.” In education, any other mission is a waste of time.

So now you have a context. And now you can begin to understand what may be going on in education when you see the rest of the story. Here we go: One day, I come to class — this is 3/4’s of the way through the semester, between weeks 8 – 9, and students are pretty accustomed to how we’re working — having in mind to go over a challenging passage in Underworld.

In typical DeLillo fashion, we have beautiful writing, a conflation of the historical with the personal, the psychological and the emotional, and the culture. “On a large console the screen was split four ways and the headshot ran in every sector and, ‘It’s outside language,’ Miles said, which is his way of saying far-out, or too much, or the other things they used to say …”

The key, here, is “headshot.” It’s JFK’s murder in Dallas on that fateful day that seemed to change the country — or, perhaps, the country had already changed and the murder was simply its symptom, a final event lifting the curtain so that Vietnam and Nixon, Watergate and the culture of cynicism we’re in now could emerge.

DeLillo continues: ” … and here was an event that took place at the beginning of the sixties, seen belatedly, that now marked the conceptual end, carrying all the delirium that floated through the age, and people stood around and talked, a man and woman made out in a closet with the door open, remotely, and the pot fumes grew stronger, and people said, ‘Let’s go eat,’ or whatever people say when a thing begins to be over” (496).

In a liberal arts environment full of inquirying minds, one would want students to pick up on “the beginning of the sixities,” “the delirium that floated through the age, “the pot fumes” (the very least), and wonder about that “headshot” that’s “outside language,” exciting a need to know; this creative disruption should, then, launch students into a Google search to come to understand how and why “the screen split four ways” and “the headshot” actually mark “the conceptual end” of an age. Reading is a contact sport and this is the work of reading critically.

DeLillo adds yet two more hints for an easy Google search: Elm Street and Zapruder. Here’s how it reads, finally, bringing the entire passage to a close:

It ran continuously, a man in his forties in a suit and tie, and all the sets were showing slow motion now, riding in a car with his confident wife, and the footage took on a sense of elegy, running even slower, running down, a sense of greatness really, the car’s regal gleam and the muder of some figure out of the dimmest lore — a greatness, a kingliness, the terrible mist of tissue and skull, so massively slow, on Elm Street, and they got something to eat and went to the loft, where they played cards for a couple of hours and did not talk about Zapruder. (496)

There it is — the images are running “continuously” on TV, hence suggesting the importance of “the murder of some figure out of the dimmest lore”; these give off a “sense of greatness”, and there’s a car that has a “regal gleam,” a la Camelot, and the horrid — and beautifully described, capturing the culture to be, the one needing reality TV — “terrible mist of tissue and skull,” moving slowly on “Elm Street” (the motorcade had to proceed to Dealey Plaza, before exiting onto the Stemmons Freeway, again turning onto Elm, from a segment of Main Street, the often disputed and critical change of plans).

DeLillo ends the entire passage with, of course, the most critical of signs, Zapruder, which should, if nothing else, send readers off into a quick but meaningful search to learn it’s function. In other words, if all other rather emphatic signs are missed or dispensed with, finding the significance of Zapruder would create a domino affect and everything would cascade into a single understanding. This is how great writing works. There is a key, a sign-function that opens doors (though these lead to other doors).

When I Googled Zapruder, before class, it took less then 3 seconds to see the first, full suggestion, “Zapruder film,” followed by the second, “Zapruder.” I chose “Zapruder,” not film, thinking that a student may push aside “film” since it’s not in the passage (even though there are images running “continously” on TV). The entire reference is here. This Google exercise, including reading the entry, took no more then 5 minutes to complete.

Back in class, I looked around and asked, after opening up to the passage and re-reading it to the class (students read it for homework a week earlier!), “What is Zapruder? Who or what is Zapruder?”

No answer. Thick silence. (There is creative, necessary silence a teacher works for in a class, and there is non-creative silence, the kind only someone dumbfounded relies on. This was the latter.) By now in the semester, students are not intimidated; we’ve joked around enough and they’ve learned that I’m not someone that creates an inhospitable environment — just the opposite. The learning space I create is open, welcoming, suggesting to students that they can take chances because they’re supported. In fact — not to boast but to give you a full picture — this is indeed my reputation judging from 27 years worth of students’ evaluations performed every single semester I’ve taught.

So then I say, “Someone Google it, please. Google Zapruder.”

In seconds, a few students find Zapruder and one kid reads: “The Zapruder film is a silent, color motion picture sequence shot by private citizen Abraham Zapruder with a home-movie camera, as U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s motorcade passed through Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963, thereby unexpectedly capturing the President’s assassination.”

The students leaned back, “Oh…,” some say. And if the students would have kept reading the entry, they would have learned about Elm Street.

I leaned forward, and asked, “When you guys read, how many of you have computers open?”

Just about every single student raised her/his hand.

“And are these computers open to Google, Facebook, Twitter? What?”

Students said that their computers are open to just about all of these — multiple windows — including (ironically) Wikipedia for some. (Is the notion of “Windows” also ironic, the deepest and darkest irony, I wonder? Windows to what?)

“And so, in the course of the semester, when we read, how often do you think I ask you guys, in class, to turn to Google and look something up?”

“You always do that,” they answered in unison. Some nodded, “Yeah. Always. We always do it. ”

“So could this be a hint? A suggestion? Something at all that may, at some point, suggest to you that what I’m asking you to do is to look things up, quite easily, using the technology at our fingertips?”

Silence, again. Students look away, down at their iPads and MacBook Pros.

New Yorker Cover, May 28, 2012. A picture says it all.

There are three distinct challenges higher education is facing: For American students, the challenge is obvious: international students are gobbling up resources and advancing efficiently, particularly in science and economics and technology, creating spaces for themselves, in the U.S. and abroad, and American students have yet to wake up to the fact that, as Thomas Friedman said years ago, the world is indeed flat ; that this race to have the most luxurious “stately pleasure – dome…Enfolding sunny spots of greenery,” as Coleridge says, particularly when we add labor costs — faculty with PhDs and the large staff needed to maintain this “miracle of rare device” — is not sustainable. (Elite institutions, recognizing that change is inevitable, have begun to address this problem.) And the last, the third challenge, perhaps the most critical of all, is that we’re not sure what our students bring to our classrooms — emotionally, psychologically and knowledge: the culture has had an effect on our students and we don’t yet know what this is, though we’re experiencing what we call something, an unknowable, perhaps, something strange and different, unfamiliar.

We’re not talking about who our students are and how they may perceive the world we’re trying to squeeze them into.

I’ve been in higher education for 27 years. I have seen a lot of changes and I’ve seen a lot that looks like change but is nothing more than smoke and mirrors. But perhaps the biggest change has been the student. We need to engage our students differently so as to better learn who they are and what they want; we need to also better engage the world outside the ivy because it, too, has changed and it’s not at all what we perceive it to be.

A huge change in the American student — leaving aside the other two distinct challenges facing American higher education — is found in the story I tell.

In a recent News Hour interview, Andrew Delbanco, Columbia University professor, speaking about his book, College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be,” tries to defend the traditional four-year college experience with a liberal arts education, joining a long list of scholars addressing the issue, and finds that the liberal arts, four-year experience is “not lost, but I think it’s under threat from many directions. And much of that is understandable. The anxiety that parents feel about the cost of colleges … It’s well – place anxiety.”

But when we look at the cost of a four-year liberal arts education, we’re failing to place this in a greater context that is more threatening to a democracy, which is our allegiance to mindless corporatism that has a primary function of scorning knowledge itself. This is why students, sitting with computers open to Google, cannot make the connection and search for Zapruder even though the behavior has been modeled in class time and time again. Thus, as John Ralston Saul says in The Unconscious Civilization, probably the best thinking on this subject, we have been given permission to “interiorize an artificial vision of civilization as a whole.” Students may see Google as part of their world, not ours, in academia, with our demands and constraints. Google, and other systems, are their liberating tools; when brought into the confines of a traditional classroom and used as a tool rather then a liberating break from confusion, a student’s identity is challenged — his or her sense of self is upside down. They’ve been taught, always, to have neat lines of demarcation that define pleasure and work — and school is work since it’s valued as a system for socio-economic success. Zapruder is therefore irrelevant to a student’s vision of reality. Students actually said this. Students embrace ideologies that insist on the “oppressive air of conformity” that “force public figures to conform or be ruined on the scaffold of ridicule.” Doubting and questioning are gone, then. “The citizen is reduced to the state of the subject or even of the serf.” Our students come into our classrooms already reluctant to challenge their position — subjects; they’ve been lead to this because they’ve never been taught to think for themselves and learn through experience. For many students, their lives have been managed.

Our communication technologies, our culture that holds fashion to the highest levels, though it’s the lowest form of ideology, is what paralyzes students that have been spoon fed a culture that insists they be driven to play dates, organized games, the proper college prep courses, the right channels to elite instituions. What is behind this narrative, though, is crude “individualism and false modernism,” leading to a life in a void. Instinct and common sense are lost. They’ve been taught that the world is hostile and that life is a competition. The horror. They can’t connect to Google in an academic setting, even if it’s to their benefit. The student sees absolutely nothing important, nothing relevant in the action of Googling Zapruder so the meaning of the DeLillo passage has been completely lost. But that’s okay, for students. The meaning of the passage, its significance in the narrative is not relevant; it’s an exercise we’ll go over in class. What is relevant is simply getting through the course, nothing more, since this is what’s being promoted culturally: get a degree in something meaningful and this will give you a good life. Students are taught to follow, not to pursue creative disruptions of the status quo.

I feel for my students. I care for them. I have kids their age as well. I feel for all these kids in school today, graduating tomorrow, because I wonder whether they can think critically, critique, fear not standing out because they question.

I leaned forward, again, and said to the class, “Remember this day when you’re handed your diplomas. I want you to go to your parents and thank them. Say, Thank you for spending over a quarter of a million dollars to make sure I’m one more sheep that will follow on command.”

I wasn’t expecting the students’ reaction. They laughed. “Professor Vila, you’re so funny,” they said. “So funny.”

I leaned back in my chair, briefly thinking that I wanted to jump out a window — and I’ve not stopped thinking about this day since.

Says Saul,

We can now add to the list such simple battles as that for consciousness versus the comfort of remaining in the unconscious; responsibility versus passivity; doubt versus certainty; delight in the human condition or sympathy for the condition of others versus self-loathing and cynism regarding the qualities of others.

So, “how’s school?” “What do you think?”

The Sex and Love Lives of College Students: Erectile Dysfunction and Other Maladies

In a recent article in the Middlebury Campus, Parton Sees Rise in Erectile Dysfunction, Saadiah Schmidt tells us that, “The last three years have witnessed an upsurge in the number of male students reporting erectile dysfunction and other sex-related problems at Parton Health Center…” The Director and College Physician, Dr. Mark Peluso, told Schmidt that, “in the majority of cases, the patients were habitual viewers of pornography, and had no difficulty with sexual performance when they were with themselves.” Peluso — and others who study the affects of pornography on habitual viewers — suggest that there is “an inverse relationship between porn and potency — as porn use increases, so do sexual insufficiencies,” Schmidt tells us. (There are plenty of studies looking at the effects of pornography, some debatable and challenging; linked in the previous sentence is only an overview for those unfamiliar. Another interesting article is Pornography’s Effects on Interpersonal Relationships.)

Schmidt’s article set off conversations — and consternation — around campus.

“I don’t believe it,” said some students.

“No way. Guys are confessing to having trouble performing? No way, man,” was another comment.

“I don’t think it’s just porn,” though, became the most common.

The sex and love lives of 18-21 year olds on a college campus are complex, to say the least. Trying to nurture intimate relationships during this transitional stage in life is very difficult, fraught with challenges that students, more often then not, are ill prepared to handle — but that we, faculty and staff may help confuse. Students are thinking about what their educations mean, where their educations will take them; they’re worried about a jobless future — perhaps no future at all; they’re struggling with tremendous amounts of work, stressful demands on their time and energy, and in-between all this they’re trying to carry on relationships.

When living a fishbowl-like college existence, is love possible for the post Sex in the City generation leaning towards Girls?

For some, the minority that is mature enough to communicate meaningfully about vulnerabilities, it can work. For others, however, love is synonymous with “just sex,” which in college means “additives,” such as alcohol and (some) drugs. Love and sex are thus reduced to “grinding” in dark corners of clubs or “rooms” where faces are unseen, music pounds and in the end, there’s the “hook up.” (Film on hook up culture)

Most colleges and universities don’t recognize that life on campuses takes place in three educational-social spheres: the day-to-day going to classes across elysian quads, students smiling, nodding to each other — everything is cool; the other campus comes alive in the dark, and is totally different — usually between Thursday and Sunday, involving pre-gaming (drinking hard in someone’s room, though sometimes alone), before going to a party where the hope is to grind into the hook up among inebriated individuals too bleary eyed to see the other. The goal, apparently, is not even the raw sex, rather it’s the story to tell the next day. The last college sphere is the place of technology, which is 24-7 — cell phones, iPads, computers — where cyber-socializing, gaming, porn, course work that’s online, and the everyday construction of lives — ordering airline tickets, reading news and sports, facebook and twitter, and so on, takes place.

College life is confusing and pressure-filled, so how can meaningful, intimate relationships evolve when what a relationship needs most is time and consideration, understanding and humility, and patience? College life is an impatient one.

We have two competing narratives, at least, always ongoing on a college campus: there’s the life in the classroom — predictable, somewhat staid, the “work,” as students call it; then there’s the less predictable, anxious life in the dark or alone in cyber-connections with cyber-realities, images one projects into the ether, performances of a nebulous and insecure self, a kind of stepping out, slowly, of embodiments of something or other yet to be defined eased out carefully, timidly. And all of this anxiousness gets expressed in the after hours culture of the college night.

Life in college is thus always defined by disconnections, though everything is connected by the ubiquitous presence of manufactured time — usually not enough time. Not enough time to complete assignments. Not enough time to get to the gym. Not enough time to eat. Not enough time to sleep. Not enough. Not enough is the trademark of college life, though countering this — and confusing things and adding tension — is the ongoing narrative of higher education: the future will is full of hope, which translates into wealth and leisure for most students.

The college is therefore the microcosm of the world outside its pleasure dome, outside Xanadu, Coleridges image of Kubla Khan. It privileges a patriarchy that, if we look at our society, as Chris Hedges does in Empire of Illusion, particularly in his chapter, “The Illusion of Love,” we see a “society that has lost the capacity for empathy.” The “not enough time,” disconnected existence of rushing about pre-gaming, grinding, hooking up cyber – culture of college life lends towards a distancing from one’s sense of self, one’s intimacy with one’s sensuality and sensitivity. So we turn to the additives — the drugs and alcohol, and cyber porn where “the woman is stripped of her human attributes,” says Hedges, “and made to be for abuse. She has no identity distinct as a human being. Her only worth is as a toy, a pleasure doll … She becomes a slave.” The dominant heteronormative culture on college campuses across America privilege these vile descriptions Hedges gives us where the viewer of porn is “aroused by the illusion that they too can dominate and abuse women.” So it’s no wonder that erectile dysfunction, once the drinking accompanies the journey from grinding to the hook up, is increasing since the actual level of intimacy required in a sexual relationship is always being pushed aside by the pressure of college life that exist in its three dominant spheres — the academic, the night, and the cyberworld.

But here’s the tragic problem: students are reacting to what we, the adults, show them; we’re indoctrinating them into society like this.  By not addressing that students’ behavior as somehow connected to our institutionalized rhetoric, we give it approbation.

“The most successful Internet porn sites and films are those that discover new ways to humiliate and inflict cruelty on women,” says Hedges. The idea, here, is to privilege domination, cruelty and exploitation, subjects that are kept at arms length in sociology courses and political science course, even in literature, but never are these subjects dealt with as sitting at the center of a confused maturation process that is made even more challenging by the false design of our educational environments that would rather build climbing walls and swimming pools and not confront the entire student. We like to only see the student from the head up, an empty vessel that needs to have our wisdom poured into them — climb a wall, exercise, and here’s what you need to know, only. The tragedy in all this is that, by not working with the entire student, we are slowly and carefully, systematically by design, moving our students away from any real understanding of themselves, the “stuff” of life needed for love and empathy. Anyone can have sex — but what is its meaning, its place in our lives?

Maybe we, the adults, have lost our connections to ourselves.

Hedges pessimistically ends his chapter on the illusion of love suggesting that “porn is the glittering facade, like the casinos and resorts in Las Vegas, like the rest of the fantasy that is America, of a culture seduced by death.” It makes sense to me. Are we, in removing students from close relationships with themselves, their internal selves, killing off their potential, their desire to be creative and to evolve? Is this, then, not a culture fixated on death? Is hook up culture — and erectile dysfunction, usually relegated, at the other end of the culture, to Viagra commercials during PGA tour TV coverage where old men golf, drink and can’t get it up — a sign of a culture moving towards death?

Are we witnessing the death rattle of dogmatic institutions unable to sustain themselves any longer and our students, in despair, sensing something is wrong, are merely acting out in a haze of confusion?

Defining the Liberal Arts in America, in 3 Parts

1. Finding the Artes Liberales

What is the place of a Liberal Arts education in American culture? This is coming up quite a lot these days, and usually accompanied by at least two other critical questions symptomatic of the state of affairs:

  • How do we measure the results of a Liberal Arts education — because we’re data driven and results oriented, thus the investment, in all its metaphorical splendor, must come to something?
  • How do these results measure up to the cost of a Liberal Arts education (in most places above 50K yearly) — because we are, after all, still puritanical and pragmatic?

Originally, the liberal arts referred to subjects which in classical antiquity were considered essential for a free citizen to study. The artes liberales have always been considered necessary for an informed citizenry — Democracy writ large. The liberal arts nurture the proper citizen, the reasoning goes, because the work of the artes liberales is critical thinking, dialog, cooperation and collaboration, and clear, insightful writing — communication on a grand but subtle scale.

In classical antiquity, this meant the study of Grammar, Rhetoric and Logic; in medieval times, these subjects (called the Trivium) were extended to include mathematics, geometry, music and astronomy, including astrology. The curriculum was called the Quadrivium that, along with the Trivium, constituted the seven liberal arts of the medieval university curriculum.

Modernism — industrialization and globalization — changed all this and extended it to include literature, languages, philosophy, history, mathematics, psychology and sciences. What the liberal arts do not relate to is the professional, vocational, or technical curricula. Also confusing or blurring this negation of the professional and technical, are courses (and majors) in the liberal arts college on computer science; we have pre-law, pre-engineering and, of course, pre-med further blurring the lines. One of the most popular majors in many of these schools is Economics, for instance, students keeping a keen eye on Wall Street. (Business Administration is the most popular major across American higher education.)

So I’m just going to put this out there, a comment I made to my education class the other day when discussing these questions and the confusion about how we feel about the liberal arts:

The Liberal Arts in American culture is synonymous with elitism; the Liberal Arts equals privilege — it’s how we see it; and the Liberal Arts is code language for expensive, small colleges, mostly in New England, that are fed by equally as expensive — and elite — prep schools. Attending these has the potential of leading a student to ‘the good life’, which is synonymous with wealth.

And in this calculus of elitism, there exist policies concerning diversity and affirmative action that ensure that students that do not come from socioeconomically privileged geographies attend these schools, have a way in, a keyhole to squeeze through, a door held slightly ajar for those that can demonstrate that they’ve pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and can assimilate into the dominant culture.

Yes, that’s exactly it, said my students, unanimously, at least a third of which do not come from geographies of privilege. It’s true, they said. This is how we “read” the Liberal Arts, they said. Thus is the baggage held by Liberal Arts institutions in the popular consciousness.

2. Finding the Work Inside the Liberal Arts

This raises other questions, of course:

  • What goes on in a Liberal Arts education?
  • What, in fact, is the relationship between the Liberal Arts school and the elite in American culture? Is it a conduit that guarantees a place at the table of power?
  • And, given the above two questions, is the place of the Liberal Arts to enable the evolution of critically thinking citizens or is it simply a high-end conveyor belt with some guarantees for wealth?

These questions are some of the ammunition used to attack the artes liberales. There may be good reason.

Martha C. Nussbaum is on the forefront of this national conversation. In her Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education (2000), Nussbaum asserts that, “…the unexamined life threatens the health of democratic freedoms, and the examined life produces vigor in the nation and freedom in the mind.” This is the kind of citizen we want — and need; the future of Democracy depends on this intellect. But, says Nussbaum, “We live, as did Socrates, in a violent society that sometimes turns its rage against intellectuals.”

Anti-intellectualism, then, is an assault on the liberal arts, an irony for Nussbaum — and others, like me, for instance — because it’s exactly what we need to have, “freedom of the mind.” But how free is the mind in these schools?

Nussbaum says that, “No curricular formula will take the place of provocative and perceptive teaching that arouses the mind.” Is this what’s going on?

My students report the following: mind-numbing, endless PowerPoints where teachers routinely read from screens; the book or two a week pace that compels students to skim and rely on Sparknotes; rigid writing assignments that ask students to repeat class notes that follow the professor’s ideas rather then asking students for their own insights, feelings and ideas; writing assignments that are always given at the end of a sequence, which students see as assignments trying to prove whether or not the student is paying attention, or busy work writing assignments, nightly or two per week reactions and summaries of the reading to see if the student is reading and following along; research papers and projects, routinely 12 – 20 pages, and assigned at the end of the semester when all classes are asking for the same thing, yet adding final exams as well, leaving no room for dialog, debate and revision. No creativity.

“Provocative and perceptive teaching,” in order to arouse the mind, cannot follow PowerPoints, nor can it ask students to engage in tasks to prove they’re listening; rather, mind arousal takes time and patience. A student — and the teacher — have to sit with ideas, let these ferment, come to the surface, so that learners can come to grips with the complexity that abounds in the human experience. This is how critical thinking is built, how inquiry is conducted. There is little evidence that this is what’s happening, according to students.

But in the pace of a semester, which ranges, depending on the school, from 12 weeks to 15, in a class that, say, meets for 2 seventy-five minute periods, I wonder how much time is afforded to Socratic activity that, says Nussbaum, again, “can enliven the thinking”? If we’re rushing through PowerPoints, and students are frantically trying to copy what’s on the screen (because faculty are frightened of simply giving the PowerPoints to students, this while MIT has put ALL their courses online!), and we’re pushing one text after another, where is the contemplation that the Socratic methods demands? Where are the writing assignments that ask students to grapple with complexity, slowly and carefully? And, since we are Americans and, for the most part, Ralph Waldo Emerson is our philosophical father, where is the time and space to revise, to think differently?

A good instructor must know a great deal about a subject; s/he must be able to draw out students to make complex connections so that the learner can begin to understand his and her capacity to reason. This takes time. If a 20 page research paper is a requirement to be delivered to the instructor at the end of the term, say during the last week or during the exam period, how is the capacity to reason determined and shown to the student? The research paper or the research project is a vital reflection on a subject; it requires time, creativity, insight. How does this happen with the pressure of the end of the term? Students say that what they do is to work through short cuts that simply enable them to produce a 20 page piece, they hand it in, and then forget about it. The goal is to be done.

The way schooling takes place, in many liberal arts institutions, what we’re in fact doing, is working against the promises of the artes liberales and, instead, we’re creating a production system that privileges the end product rather then the process; that privileges being done, rather then an examination of the insights that have gone into creating a piece in the first place. We’re product oriented. The process, where the actual teaching and learning takes place, where insights can happen and where space has to be given for ambiguity is repressed in the name of speed and efficiency. Getting through a packed syllabus and reaching the end of the term are the major course management principles; the number of pages a student writes, by the end of the term, is more important than the quality of insight, the creativity used to approach complexity. A student’s reading on an author, subject or idea is less important then her ability to mimic the teacher’s thoughts, reproduce the teacher’s lecture. Ironically, a passionate, insightful reading of a writer’s passage is more engaging, more useful in producing enlivened thinking.

In the modern curriculum, as we taut the relationship between the artes liberales and the informed citizen, we remove the most vital aspect, which is the time and the space — the safe space — essential for provoking and challenging pre-conceived perceptions about the order of things. We exist in systems based on time and efficiency models, rather then on how we learn. We’ve decided to go along with what we deem to be finished products, rather then trying to understand, in one another, how we come to be creative, how we imagine. In fact, an argument can be made that we’ve taken away the capacity to imagine on a grand scale.

3. Finding Empathy — or can we create a Citizen of the World?

In another, more recent book, Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities (2010), Nussbaum says that the abilities associated with the humanities and the arts, which are critical for our survival as a Democracy are : “the ability to think critically; the ability to transcend local loyalties and to approach world problems as a ‘citizen of the world’; and, finally, the ability to imagine sympathetically the predicament of another person.”

The number one complaint of students I know is that they don’t have time to think; that everything is rushed; that course material is “rammed,” they say, and that how much one reads and does is more important than how deeply one thinks.

“As long as you give the prof what he wants, and you know what that is, then you’re fine,” said a student, echoing what many students say.

“We don’t have time to think about what we’re told we’re learning,” said another.

“We can’t even talk over a meal because we’re always rushing to the next class,” yet another.

What are we doing? Do we even know?

We indoctrinate students into a kind of institutional loyalty that rejects — and punishes — critiques of “local loyalties”. Adding to the problem — and the challenges facing the Liberal Arts — the economic system privileges hyperindividualism, leaving no room for empathy, the ability “to imagine sympathetically the predicament of another person.” In this system, it’s hard to actually think sympathetically about another since that Other is a sign of competition, someone or something we need to overcome and outdo. Getting ahead is the primary concern.

The humanities — the artes liberales — should inspire searching; instead, we’ve conditioned ourselves to push students to quickly seek majors, line up behind stringent requirements, though we expect them to take a course here and a course there about Other places in the world — Asia, Africa, Latin America; we inspire them to take foreign languages and to visit other countries, an approach that’s more like looking for the right restaurant, the right vacation spot without really thinking about our impact on others. We have forgotten what Paul Bowles told us in The Sheltering Sky: there is a difference between the tourist and the visitor.

We thus move about without imagining sympathetically the predicament of another person, as Nussbaum suggests. And so the challenge of the Liberal Arts is to (a) justify this conveyor belt approach that could, perhaps, enable some to enter into higher socioeconomic classes and (b) to justify, in doing so, the expense, which is rising. But there is a third consideration: how has this system added to our problems, not least of which is the systematic creation of a society divided along class lines that, in turn, emerge from our stringent parameters that determine access to (elite) higher education.

Chris Hedges, in Empire of Illusion, says that we can lay all of the worlds problems on the doorsteps of the best colleges and universities. I agree. We’re creating assembly line workers, parading as thinkers, eager to keep things as they are, fixing a nut here and a bolt there, but lacking in an imaginative perspective that can embrace, with empathy, the problems and challenges of the world. Privilege has been effectively eroticized. How expensive is that?

In Excellence Without a Soul: Does Liberal Education Have a Future? (2007), former Dean of Harvard College, Harry R. Lewis tells us that, “Unquestionably, the rewards of being part of top-tier university have caused competition for both student and faculty slots that has made both groups better in certain important ways. Yet while the competition has drawn better faculty and students to top universities, it has driven the two groups apart.”

There is a disconnect in the liberal arts academy, not least of which is the notion that we’re not really sure who are students are.